19 December 2006
Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell Street (btwn Polk & Larkin) [Map]
Drinks Consumed: 1 beer and a shot; a bottle of water when I almost passed out on the floor
Review at the Owl Mag
Joanna Newsom's sold out show at the Great American Music Hall on December 19 marks the first time I've been shushed at a show since I yelled, "Fuck yeah!" at a Kings of Convenience show when they played the chorus of Pavement's "Range Life." We were even shushed between songs, and jKoshi, who took the photos for this review, got a few dirty looks for his camera being too loud while he snapped shots. So to say that Newsom attracts a unique crowd is an understatement. As a friend put it, a strange cult of personality accompanies Newsom, and it transcends the Newsom clone haircuts donned by girls in the audience. A large portion of the crowd took this show too seriously. Yes, her music is quiet and beautiful, but talking to friends in "inside voices" while standing 10 feet from the bar does not warrant angry looks or SHHHH's. It made the audience seem a little...fanatical.
Also worth note: Newsom plays seated at her harp so unless you were right up front or in a premium spot in the balcony she was very difficult to see. Those of us in the crowd under 5'8" were forced to make due with quick glimpses between heads in the crowd. A venue with tiered seating would be better suited for the show.
Silence Nazis and neck craning aside, the show was amazing. Newsom came onstage alone and opened with "Bridges and Balloons," followed by "Sadie," both from her 2003 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. An Appalachian-style folk quintet joined her onstage after the third song, bearing everything from a saw to a mandolin. They played "Emily," the first track on her critically acclaimed 2006 release, Ys. The five-track album features Newsom backed by an orchestra, so the substitution of the folk band brought something a little different—dare I say "freak-folk"—to the performance. Debates over whether or not the compositions of Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks really do her justice became irrelevant as the band interpreted Parks' orchestration. They played Ys in its entirety and the crowd hung on every screech of her voice and pluck of the harp as if she had cast some kind of evil spell on them.
The band and Newsom returned for the encore with a new song—some kind of Appalachian freak-folk jam session—that is hopefully not a sign of Joanna Newsom albums to come. When the song finally ended (and I mean finally, it dragged on for what seemed like fifteen minutes) the band cleared the stage, leaving only Newsom and her harp once more. She closed with two more songs from her first album, "Peach, Plum, Pear" and "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie." Between her prodigious skills as a harpist, an imagination that would make T.H. White jealous, and her penchant for words like "dirigible" and "taciturn," Newsom lives up to the hype she has been afforded by critics. And, really, when was the last time you heard a musician reference "Sisyphus?"