When you think about it, there are actually a lot of similarities between Kanye West and Joanna Newsom. Both are ridiculously talented; both released critically acclaimed albums in 2010, and both are artists that people have extremely strong and vocal opinions on. You either love them or you hate them. Apropos of nothing, a Facebook friend had his status on Monday evening say, “joanna newsom is performing at carnegie tomorrow. too bad she SUCKS.” There’s really no in-between.
Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, they both performed last night in New York—in very different venues.
No matter your opinion of them, though, you have to admit that both Kanye and Joanna are musical geniuses. He can make a 34-minute music video for a nine-minute song, while she can somehow chart a triple-disc album that lasts over two hours (and have one of her songs, “Sprout and the Bean,” in a Victoria’s Secret commercial). And you must also admit that if Joanna’s going to perform anywhere, it should be at the legendary Carnegie Hall (which she described last night as having “acoustic properties that are magic”), where people could comfortably sit and listen to her Joanna’s medieval lullabies instead of awkwardly stand around.
After instantly forgettable opening sets from Neal Morgan and Ryan Francesconi, Joanna’s drummer and guitarist/banjo player/composer/etc., and a seemingly 30-minute harp tuning session, Joanna took the stage around 9:15 p.m., beginning with “Bridges and Balloons.” Instead of sounding like the version on The Milk-Eyed Mender, though, this rendition was livelier, raspier, sexier. This was partially because she had a full band, complete with two violin players, trombonist, guitarist and drummer, but also because Joanna’s voice has changed so much in the past six years. She no longer sounds squeaky and girly, but confident and womanly. It suits her songs well, even if she does increasingly sound like Joni Mitchell.
That doesn’t mean she can’t do whimsical anymore, though. That’s still what she does best, with songs like “Peach, Plum, Pear” and “In California” sounding wonderfully identical to the versions on the album. Thing is, as much as I enjoy Joanna, I don’t think I ever make it more than 20 seconds following her lyrics. It’s easy to fall into her songs, the same way you might a Baz Luhrmann film; you may have no idea what’s going on (for a fun time, check out Joanna’s page on songmeanings.net), but you know it’s gorgeous, and moments like that happened with nearly every song during last night’s show, especially on the longer cuts like “Have One on Me” and “Emily.”
Which is why “Inflammatory Writ” and “Good Intentions Paving Company” were so well received by the audience. Probably the most “joyful” of any of Joanna’s songs, these two were bouncy and fun, the latter featuring a trombone solo by Andrew Strain. Joanna looked like she was having fun, which is something people don’t give her enough credit for: she’s actually quite funny on stage, with excellent comic timing, and during another harp tuning timeout, she asked the crowd if they had any questions for anyone onstage. After someone yelled, “What’s it like to be a goddess?” the session quickly ended.
You get the feeling that Joanna could make up lyrics on the fly, on the same level as a jam band guitarist soloing or a rapper, say Kanye West, freestyling. But even he couldn’t come up with something like, “And everything with wings is restless, aimless, drunk, and dour/The butterflies and birds collide at hot, ungodly hours.”
Photo by Nadia Chaudhury