Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of seeing Joanna Newsom perform in Bloomington at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater (which is also where I saw this guy – I have a pretty good association with this place). She was, of course, fantastic. Opening was Robin Pecknold (of Fleet Foxes), who’s not only incredibly talented in his own right, but pretty charming to boot. He only played seven songs, but I could have listened to the man for hours.
When Newsom took the stage I was immediately surprised at how dynamic and personable she is. You see, I was first introduced to her by my wife when Ys was new, and as much as I enjoy that record I think it’s whimsical epics made me picture her as a little more… strange I guess? Maybe a little esoteric? I’m not sure. All I can say is that the pleasant and completely personable girl who took the stage in a colorful sundress took me by surprise. The incredible show she put on, however, was not a surprise, and was every bit as great as I’d hoped. The whole night was fantastic, and you can read my quick rundown after the jump.
Robin Pecknold’s short set was made up primarily of new songs with a handful of covers thrown in. His first song opened with the line “Don’t sing my songs, you’ll wake my mother,” his incredible voice ringing out over the bare guitar behind it. I was struck at how powerfully he used that voice while remaining so unassuming on the stage – there were moments in every song where my jaw actually dropped at the man’s talent. He played a pair of covers, one Jackson C. Frank song and one John Jacob Niles song, as well as a token Fleet Foxes tune, “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”. He closed with a medley of three (I assume) new songs – the last one especially entranced me as Pecknold repeated the refrain “Why in the night sky are the lights on?” (UPDATE: That last song was indeed a new FF song I somehow missed awhile back, called “Blue Spotted Tail” – check it out HERE) This was actually my third time seeing Pecknold perform, and the first time seeing him without his band, and I can pretty confidently say he is one of the most talented songwriters playing right now.
Newsom took the stage after a 45 minute harp-tuning break, and like I said, she immediately struck me by how pleasant she was onstage. More than that though, I was dumbstruck by her sheer talent. Yeah I know, duh. But even with my high expectations, the way she commanded her harp and piano up there was more than just impressive – it was entrancing. And her voice, which is often described as “an acquired taste”, was perfect – her inflections and cadences conjuring up places and characters within her yarn-like songs. Her supporting band included Ryan Francesconi on guitar/banjo/anything else you can imagine, Neal Morgan on drums and back-up vocals (Neal was extremely dynamic and a lot of fun to watch), along with two violinists and a horn player, and they were all impeccable.
Newsom leaned heavily on material from Have One On Me, and especially on its first disc (which happens to contain most of my favorites), playing all but one of its six tracks. She also threw a few picks in from The Milk-eyed Mender, including the fan-favorites “The Book of Right-on” and “Inflammatory Writ”. At one point in the night, when several members of the audience were calling out requests, Ms. Newsom replied, “with a band like this, we can’t really take requests… we have sheet music and stuff… but if we could we’d play every one of those songs”. Charming, right? For some reason the thought of all the sheet music involved in a Joanna Newsom concert made my head reel a little bit. Along a similar line, equal to her musical prowess must be Newsom’s ability to memorize and recite incredibly long passages… I mean, “Emily” alone is 12 minutes long with almost no instrumental breaks! And she played it without a cheat sheet. I think that’s pretty impressive.
Highlights of the night included “Good Intentions Paving Co.” (which Robin Pecknold called “one of the best songs ever written” – and I think I agree) and a beautiful duet between Newsom and Pecknold on “On A Good Day” – one of my far-and-away favorite songs off Have One On Me. The encore was “Peach, Plum, Pear” from The Milk-eyed Mender, and its “na na na na” refrain was a perfect note to end the show on. The whole thing was pretty magical – a great night of music to be sure.
CLICK HERE for a taste of Newsom’s live show – it’s her full concert recorded in D.C. and made available by NPR’s All Songs Considered. And make sure to check out Newsom’s Have One On Me (out now on Drag City), and be looking for Fleet Foxes’ sophomore record somewhere in the near future.
Here’s Joanna’s setlist:
Have One On Me
Soft As Chalk
The Book Of Right-on
Good Intentions Paving Co. (with Robin & Aja Pecknold)
On A Good Day (with Robin Pecknold)
Peach, Plum, Pear
And a few pictures: