Monday, January 22, 2007

Joanna Newsom, Barbican Centre, London
Fri. 19 January 2007

Wearing an almost identical dress to the one she is depicted in on the cover of Ys, Joanna Newsom shyly steps in front of a full Barbican Hall framed by her drummer, guitarist and conductor. Once behind her towering pedal harp, she delivers the first notes of Emily. Tonight, she will be performing Ys in its entirety, backed with the London Symphony Orchestra. This date comes at the end of a short tour of the UK, and is the sole performance with the Barbican-based formation.

Joanna is there, on stage, just behind the guitarist...

The songs are presented in the exact same order as on the album, but Van Dyck Parks’s arrangements at times appear to have be given a slightly different relief. Cast against the orchestra, Newsom’s voice sounds as if it has once again gained in maturity and clarity, giving the songs a much sharper and vibrant feel. Emily flows well. The song, for her younger sister, provides a perfect introduction to the evening. Monkey And Bear follows. Equally as exquisite as the original, its Celtic roots, brushed with discreet medieval tones, appear much clearer, highlighted by the outburst of percussions and the soft vocal harmonies provided by Newsom’s drummer.

As the lights are dimmed, the focus is on Joanna alone when she starts Sawdust And Diamonds. Her execution is particular acute and physical here as she caries the whole song alone. Her hands run on the strings in intricate sequences, like spiders on a web, yet, nothing of the complexity transpires in the music as she weaves melodic patterns and lays upon them her delicately acidic tones. Here, she captures the attention of the audience for good and will not let go until the end of the performance.

The epic Only Skin follows. Stretching over sixteen minutes, it is a monster of a piece, but it is delivered with precision and class. The pastoral feel of the song is accentuated as the orchestral backdrop ebbs and flows with the melody. Toward the end, Newsom is joined by Smog’s Bill Callahan, her partner in life, who adds a deeper, darker harmony to the culminating section of the song. Cosmia, which is, as Joanna informs us, the last song she will be performing with the orchestra, flows like a river, at times tumultuous and wild, at others peaceful and vast. The soft accordion brushes which give the song a discreet Jacques Brel flavour on Ys are absent here, but this almost goes unnoticed as vibrant orchestral swathes continuously swell.

After a short interval, Joanna returns to the stage, this time on her own, for a few more songs. ‘This is not a Christina Aguilera costume change’ she says, justifying her change of dress by the intensity of the first half of the concert. She begins with The Book Of Right On and Sadie, renamed Sasha in honour of a friend, both from The Milk-Eyed Mender, followed by Ca' The Yowes To The Knowes, a traditional Scottish song which is perfectly suited to her voice and instrument. Joanna is then joined by her drummer and guitarist for a brand new song with strong Irish folk flavours, which may give an insight into what the follow up to Ys might sound like. With one more song under their belt, the trio retire. Joanna comes back once more for a one song encore. ‘We have been debating which song I should do, and this is the one’ she says before breaking into Bridges & Balloons, concluding a truly magnificent evening under the ovations of a devoted audience.

The contrast between Joanna Newsom’s frail appearance and disarming modesty and the confidence with which she delivers her songs, either with the orchestra or on her own, couldn’t be greater. With Ys, Ms Newsom undoubtedly delivered a career-defining record, and this live performance didn’t disappoint.

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