Thursday, April 19, 2007

Joanna Newsom - 18/04/2007@AB, Bruxelles

I bought my concert ticket even before having heard Ys, and my blind faith was rewarded more than I could have imagined. Ys's orchestra was reduced to just violin, tambura/banjo and percussion, but there was no sense of loss: as the original arrangements use elliptical suggestions rather than brute force or strength-in-numbers, they could be effectively emulated in a stripped-down context. Of course, on the songs taken from The Mik-Eyed Mender, there was no such problem to begin with.

The very first notes of "Emily" promised a beautiful experience that only got more extraordinary with each passing song. To hear Joanna Newsom's voice on CD is one thing, but to see her, sitting behind the harp, swooping through rollercoaster melodies while subtly playing with vocal phrasing and timbre was amazing, at times almost overwhelming. Wonderful, but also courageous: who would think to sing about the differences between meteors, meteorites and meteoroids, let alone make it sound good? Would others not have attempted to eliminate that bizarre, glitch-like squeak that leads into high notes? Newsom makes it charming.

I was highly admirative of the adequation between the music and the singing: both were smart, unconventional and creative. Every percussion hit (the percussionist remained silent for long stretches of time), backing vocal (the violinist's female voice and the percussionist's male voice were applied in careful doses) or violin line fit with a tailor-made snugness.

Sure, it's difficult to follow the narratives, even one as relatively straight-forward as "Monkey & Bear," especially given such rich musical accompaniment. While I generally agree with Steve Smith's assessment that Newsom is "clearly dancing in her head," with Van Dykes Parks "inviting everyone inside," I think that the use of a limited set of recurring, catchy melodies effectively provides a cyclical counterweight to the radically linear narratives. In other words, you don't hang on to the chorus lyrics, but to the musical motifs. In any case, I don't see concerts this powerful very often.

An aside. Apparently, it's OK to use super glue to temporarily close a finger cut incurred while playing harp. While waiting for the glue to dry, Newsom filled the time with some of her endearing, slightly goofy stage patter. She told us about her brother and sister texting her in response to a very bad joke she had told in Dublin, while the glue dried. Her excuse was that it is the only joke she can remember. You can see that moment here.

Australian singer/songwriter Ned Collette opened, alone with his guitar and loop station. He too tended to spin long, hard-to-follow narratives, but without really commanding the stage enough for me to want to make the effort. They were about more standard-issue issues: in one song, he sang "You look good by bringing me down." Collette steadily increased his use of loops, building several layers, soloing for a few bars and then changing the accompaniment under the looped solo.