Music Features

Joanna Newsom: Live at St. Andrew's Hall, Vancouver (5/12/2006)

Apparently (according to a brief graze with media propaganda), there is a rumour abound that Joanna Newsom is 'fake'. I'm not sure if this is intended to mean that her harp is a manifestation of our own minds, if she herself is composed of negative matter, or perhaps that she is an Elven woman and so we must attribute all her work to magic. But most likely, it's her own esoteric listening circle's tribute to the "one of the Spice Girls is a man" circulation ten years ago.

But within the grasp of her live show, beyond the venue's outdoor queue, resting at the end of the Church's grandiose aisle; the harp stood in all its voluptuous glory, seemingly having survived the medieval times with little wear. Perhaps I'm losing my overt cynicism, but I had no doubt that both Sawdust and Diamonds were soon to be flowing relentlessly.

Nestling in a tightly packed pew, I took to the high ceilings and stained glass of St. Andrew's Hall and went for the hymns, which (despite my valiant attempt) were soon hastily exchanged for street papers. But as Bill Callahan (aka Smog) touched the night with his first note, I dropped my paper (and jaw) at both his presence and the acoustics. Ripe with acute calm, his head shook as his body rocked within the confines of his folding chair. All his bittersweet tension curdled in his face before it hit the microphone in smooth vibrato, all tenderized by his echoing pleas. Not before convincing me of a world of applications relating to the sycamore, he dispersed. Minutes passed, and then came Newsom, scrambling onto the stage with a feverishly delicate air.

Situating herself behind her instrument like a school girl settling after recess, she initiated the concert with two solo tracks from Mender. Gaping in awe at the methodology of the instrument, I realized that prior to being poised on a church pew in Newsom's flood, my most sincere relationship with a harp was a glossy photograph printed in Volume 8 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It is needless to say that that relationship lacked intimacy. Newsom, however, surged energy into her harp with astute finesse, the music settling like a clothing loom burgeoning string into fabric. Her face danced within the instrument's frame, her lips bent to one side like a puppet dangling a cigarette. Every squeal came out with an idiosyncratic expression akin to the erratic tangents of her voice, building independence before she was joined by a banjo, guitar, oud, accordion and drums to play Ys.

The band stayed for the performance of the entire album, which was played in its entirety, in complete succession. The oud and banjo glided with light compliments in the air of a traditional ensemble; while the drummer brought a consistent and ample foundation alongside his thick, rich vocals. But for the most part, the crescendos and valleys that spanned Ys proved strongest while Newsom reigned solo. The accordion often drowned the harp's delicate resonation, especially during the components where it replicated the album's orchestral arrangements. As for the girl dousing in occasional vocal back-ups, and more predominantly, one drowned glockenspiel part - she seemed overtly superfluous, sitting on a raised stool at centre stage. I can only conclude that she is someone to whom Newsom was/is indebted.

While anyone who fell into the mysticism of Ys will defend its thematic flow, its chronological presentation ran at the expense of the spontaneity of live performance. As Cosmia approached, the concert's closure clearly lingered. But as soon as she said her goodbyes and scurried away with the band, an ardent standing ovation bashfully pulled Joanna back onstage. And so she sat poised to perform another three tracks from Mender, sandwiching the infamous Peach, Plum, Pear at the centre of her encore. Though eagerly anticipated, the high-pitched notes that cue the song came out unstable and trepid. Inevitably, the song proved anti-climatic, and her delicacy instead captured the audience with the dusty pungency of Sadie. And then she vanished again, this time conclusively.

In defence of the influx of artists playing church venues, the precise acoustics nursed the performance's benevolent mood with affection. Newsom's fairytale thread spun the audience effortlessly into her fables, and in turn we perched attentively in silent awe while she was present, for that night all our jaws dropped silently.