Live review: Joanna Newsom at Orpheum Theatre

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The harpist, pianist and singer, who has crafted a body of work that sounds like none other, stirs fans’ ardor and fills the hall with precisely rendered melodies.

On Saturday at L.A.'s ornate Orpheum Theatre, the downtown venue originally built for Vaudeville shows with a stage that has supported performances by, among many others, the Marx Brothers, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald, another singular voice presented timeless inspiration.Joanna Newsom, a harpist/pianist from Nevada City, California, accompanied by a precise, lyrical five piece band that at various times featured violins, trombone, acoustic guitar, banjo, drums and cowbell, sang a dozen songs on topics including (in no particular order): sunlight, snow, stars, the sea, moonlight, black bears, autumn, gardens, daddy longlegs, wishbones, precious hearts, eyelashes, a darkness that “falls so fast it feels like some sort of mistake,” goldfish-eating foxes, mollusks, peaches, plums, pears, geese, barbers and butcher boys.

The singer, whose last L.A. performance was at Walt Disney Concert Hall, sat before a harp that occupied three times as much space as its player. As at the Disney performance, she spun her fingers across the strings with a driven but graceful intent, like a spider’s legs working to entangle a fly, and the precisely rendered melodies filled the hall. When she changed instruments and sat at the Steinway, which she did throughout the night, Newsom’s straw-colored hair cascaded down to the small of her back while she relayed stories of the pastoral life and the creatures that inhabit it.

Some songs on Saturday night, such as “In California,” stretched to ten minutes and beyond, as Newsom worked to convey an abstract lyrical narrative about the challenges of living away from a lover: “Some nights I just never go to sleep at all,” she sang, “and I stand shaking in the doorway like a sentinel.” Others, like “Inflammatory Writ,” arrived in compact, three minute bursts. Her lyrics are so single-mindedly focused on the natural world that the appearance in lyrics of a “bulletproof car” in “Baby Birch” felt like some sort of alien invasion (even if said vehicle was used to describe the stars above).


She opened her 75-minute set with four songs from her ambitious recent full-length, “Have One on Me,” before weaving in older titles from her previous two albums, “Ys,” from 2006 (which featured arrangements by Van Dyke Parks), and her infectious 2004 debut, “The Milk-Eyed Mender.” It was delivered via a singing voice that’s as pure is it is dynamic, one that has matured from an at-times grating shriek early in her career into an instrument able to offer a smooth, well-tended tone with measured phrasings and octave-spanning curlicues. At this point feeding her pitch-perfect vocals into an Auto-Tune program would probably cause the software to collapse in on itself.

Newsom performed to a sold out Orpheum audience that rivaled Justin Bieber fans in their ardor. The singer had to spend an inordinate amount of time between songs affectionately swatting away random hollered compliments. A male fan raced to the stage and tossed her a bouquet, and a woman was intercepted by a security guard near the front row as she made a beeline for the musician. “We love you, Joanna!” was the richest insight the crowd had to offer when she queried her fans on their collective mood.

Such devotion is understandable in a 2010 pop, hip hop and rock world in which mimicry and perfectly-curated musical influence is the norm. In contrast, Newsom has crafted a body of work that sounds like none other, with willfully oblique structures and meandering, lyrical snapshots that would be ripe for parody were they not so exquisitely rendered. “Autumn” begins with the scene-setting couplet: “Driven through by her own sword/summer died last night, alone.”

The singer writes songs that seem like they could have been composed in any decade of the last 80 years (and some, earlier centuries), music that exists not because of, but despite, rock ‘n roll and pop music. Pieces such as “Easy,” “Autumn,” and “Peach, Plum, Pear,” draw on parlor tunes, baroque-tinged old-time numbers, British and American folk music, mid-century showtunes, barrelhouse blues, Vaudeville stompers and Brechtian story-songs. Newsom’s lyrics seem more inspired by William Wordsworth and Robert Browning than Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, though an affection for iconoclastic forebearers Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell and Karen Dalton is evident.

One highlight near the end of the night, “Good Intentions Paving Company,” felt the most modern of the lot, a rhythm heavy, piano romp in which Newsom recounts a nighttime fight while rolling down the highway: “The road’s too long to mention – lord it’s something to see/Laid down by the Good Intentions Paving Company.” Newsom built drama with her voice and piano, as percussionist Neal Morgan tapped out a tense rhythm and a jangly tambourine, trombonist Andy Strain offered muted punctuation and guitar/tambura player Ryan Francesconi plucked a banjo in counterpoint. A pair of string players offered gorgeous tension throughout the night.

Opening the show was singer Robin Pecknold, best known for his work fronting Seattle band Fleet Foxes. The singer has a chrome-toned voice that had no trouble filling the Orpheum, and he, too, offered much musing – most of it new, as-yet-unreleased work -- on Earthly delights such as snowflakes, orchards, sunlight, the ocean and dreams. His was a more traditional approach, though, mostly recalling the Topanga-tinged country rock delivered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (and all the combinations thereof), as well as the soft country rock of the band America. It was beautiful, yes, but where the marquee harpist found strength in precision, Pecknold’s overarching lyrical concerns are more broad and less evocative. But with a voice as pure and powerful as his, the lapses into generality were nonetheless delivered peacefully, and easily.

--Randall Roberts

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