live review

Joanna Newsom, The Paramount, Wellington

Joanna Newsom, The Paramount, Wellington

January 31 2010
Paramount Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Daniel Herman
29th March 2010

Joanna Newsom and band
Sunday 31st January
The Paramount Theatre, Wellington

Contrary to popular belief, Joanna Newsom does not have pointed ears. She is in no way elfin. Really, she looks exactly like she sounds, and as she appeared Sunday night at the Paramount Theatre in Wellington: strikingly beautiful, with a childlike playfulness, and the self-assurance of a virtuoso.

Newsom’s music can certainly be called “challenging.” Her last album, *Ys*, arrived either 200 years ahead of its time, or 200 years too late. Its five songs clock in at an intimidating 55 minutes. Rhymes are resolved five or six lines after they are introduced. But to say one is rewarded for the effort is a vast understatement. Newsom has a background in creative writing, and the kaleidoscopic imagery in her songs transports the listener to her universe, joining her in finding the divine within the mundane: “I saw you last night, by the river / I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water / Frowning at the angle where they were lost and slipped under forever / In a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky’d been breathing on a mirror.”

The Paramount was sold out well in advance, and the audience sat in rapt silence for the duration. Standout tracks from her debut—“The Book of Right On,” “Bridges and Balloons,” “Inflammatory Writ”—were expanded, adding string flourishes and a percussive backbone to the originally unaccompanied album versions. “Emily,” the lone offering from *Ys*, was stripped down, the tempestuous orchestral arrangements from the record channeled by Ryan Francesconi’s veritable United Nations of strings and woodwinds. Ms. Newsom herself shifted effortlessly from harp to piano, shedding the mantle of the enchantress, pounding busily at the keys.

The set opener, an epic ten-minute song that might have been the title track from her forthcoming triple (!) album *Have One On Me*, found the melody continually slipping and shifting, Newsom’s fingers flying over the harp strings—long and thin, extensions of the harp strings themselves. She sang in her inimitable vibrato, guiding us into her world: “We picked our way down to the beach / Watching the waves dragging out of our reach / Tangled in tails like a sodden sheet / Dangling on trails from the God of the Sea.”

Ms. Newsom has introduced a blues-y swagger to her harp playing, contrasting beautifully against the formal technicality of her extended pieces. On a few of the new songs, Neal Morgan’s drums saw them into a swinging jazz trio, the house band at a cocktail bar frequented by avant garde artisans and craftspeople.

Sunday night was certainly the first time the phrase “hydrocephalitic restlessness” was spoken—let alone sung—in the Paramount. The Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold once said of Newsom’s work, “I am glad to be alive in a world where this is popular music.” That five hundred Wellingtonians sat enthralled for two hours to hear her perform is surely a cause for optimism. “By the time you read this,” she sang, “I will be far away.” Joanna Newsom and her band play Tuesday evening in Auckland.


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