Live at Carnegie Hall: Joanna Newsom’s Beautiful Twisted Fantasy

11/24/2010 11:23 AM |

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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

14 Comment

  • “When you think about it, there are actually a lot of similarities between Kanye West and Joanna Newsom.”

    I’m sorry, is this a review for Joanna Newsom’s concert or Kanye’s? Why mention Kanye at all in this article? And why the hell would you include your facebook friend’s status update saying she “SUCKS”? How insulting. You were probably one of the annoying hipsters in the crowd who didn’t know how to behave themselves or turn off their phones.

    And I, for one, LOVED the two opening sets. The first from drummer Neal Morgan, who had the extreme amount of guts to sing newly written songs unaccompanied except for some light, minimal percussion. I’ve never seen something so modest, fresh, and brave on a classical stage. Hardly “instantly forgettable.” I loved his comment: “It’s so dark in here. It’s like stumbling into a dark hotel room, except the room is Carnegie Hall.” And even if you couldn’t appreciate the simple beauty of that performance, you at least could have treated Ryan Francesconi, Joanna Newsom’s arranger (not composer! SHE composes her own songs!), with a little more respect. His were beautiful and intricate compositions, executed with incredible skill.

    “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.”

    I certainly didn’t. When I listen to her music, I get the sense that these pieces were a brilliant combination of talent and work, that she sat down and thought about the meaning, poetry, and structure of her work, on a very high literary and musical level. A true genius who can write some of the most beautiful and brilliant poetry AND music of her time.

    And no, I don’t have to admit Kanye West is a genius. I’ll admit he’s talented, but he just shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as Joanna Newsom, let alone the same article.

  • Ok, so you’re a superfan. I get it.

    But don’t you think you’re overreacting just a bit to the Kanye angle, which was nicely employed because of the degree to which Kanye’s Bowery show has dominated music talk on the internet today? And the thing about the Facebook status update? Clearly included to illustrate his previous point, that Newsom inspires very strong, often immediate reactions. This is pretty simple stuff, really.

    Good job calling out the “hipsters,” though. You’ve really shed a good deal of light on a topic that hasn’t been discussed at all.

  • I’m just asking for an article written with respect that the artists deserve by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about.

    Also I am sick of hearing about Kanye everywhere. Joanna Newsom is a bit of an escape from that whole culture for me, and it just annoys me to see him brought up again here. I apologize if I come off as a bit sensitive to all that. Frankly, I am.

  • You’re tired of hearing about what at this particular moment is the biggest story in music, popular or otherwise? And you think it’s disrespectful that lighthearted mention was made of it in a review of another performance? If you take issue with the dismissive tone of the comments about the openers, well, I can understand that. But this notion that it’s somehow offensive to talk about Kanye West and Joanna Newsom in the same sentence is problematic for about a million reasons.

  • It wasn’t a mere mention. It’s practically the thesis of the damn review. “How does this compare to Kanye West?” It’s referenced in the title for crying out loud. Enough already. But that’s just annoying.

    What’s insulting and slightly offensive is, yes, the dismissiveness of the openers, and writing about someone’s tweet that they suck, as if it’s important to point out that some inarticulate people on the internet have negative opinions. Just because your facebook friend thinks someone TOOOOOTALLY SUXX doesn’t mean you should include that in the article, nor is it proof that she’s a divisive or controversial figure on the level of Kanye West. (The whole idea of “you either love them or hate them” is rarely ever an interesting or accurate observation to make about an artist anyway, despite the fact that it’s something you hear all the time, but that’s beside the point.) On top of which, the writer doesn’t know the difference between a composer and an arranger. It’s just lazy and stupid writing, and the artists deserve better.

  • My goodness, this is an awful lot of complaining about a very positive review. But anyway, it’s not a *thesis* by any means — it’s a playful hook that anyone but the most weirdly devoted superfan would immediately identify as such.

    We’ll agree to disagree, I guess, about the divisiveness of Newsom (who, on a large scale, is easily more divisive than Kanye–who you claim is far more so), and especially about the usefulness of the Facebook story. You’re making FAR too much of it, regardless. As for the composer/arranger thing, that’s clearly our mistake, and I’ll make a correction.

    I maintain, though, that the most offensive, lazy and stupid thing going on here is the assertion that Kanye West and Joanna Newsom exist in such different worlds that they can’t be spoken about in the same conversation.

  • Yep, you’re right. They both make music, and different people have different opinions about them. I can’t believe I never saw the connection before! It’s so obvious!

    The difference, it should be noted, however, is that Kanye is the most egotistical musical figure with very little actual musical chops, while Joanna is one of the most modest with an enormous amount of talent.

    You ever think maybe you guys are the superfans, not being able to stop talking about how Kanye’s a genius even though he can’t sing, can hardly play an instrument, and writes lyrics like “I sent this bitch a picture of my dick”? You really think that qualifies someone as a genius? *Genius*. I mean really. It’d be laughable if the opinion wasn’t so pervasive among the media. Instead it’s just embarrassing.

    Look, Kanye’s alright. But the way you guys talk about him it’s like you’ve all been paid off to sing his praises. (I don’t really think you have, for the record. I think you’re all just mesmerized by his sensationalism and ambition.)

  • Also, “Peach, Plum, Pear” was far from identical to the record, where it’s strictly harpsichord and voice. It was a totally new arrangement featuring a banjo introduction, percussion, everything. Was this guy even paying attention?

  • “But the way you guys talk about him it’s like you’ve all been paid off to sing his praises.”

    Right: http://www.thelmagazine.com/newyork/kanye-…

  • Actually that’s a great review. I take that comment back.

  • I’m with Mike here. Kanye and Jo have released my two favorite, most listened to albums this year. I kind of had some fun drawing comparisons between the two albums. Look at two of the most central lines from each album: isn’t saying “Will ya Have One on Me” and “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags” ring a little familiar? Funny how two vastly different artists can express similar sentiments in their toasts.

  • 1. I was dismissive of the opening acts because I didn’t think they were very good, and because they were openers. This piece is a review, and that was my opinion. I realize they’re extremely talented individuals, but just because the first act was brave enough to sing a new song on stage doesn’t mean I thought it was very good. Again, it’s an opinion piece and that was my opinion.

    2. I don’t really have to spend too much defending my fandom of Joanna but I’ll say this: I love her music

  • Great concert but the opening acts were poor i can understand her reasoning for letting her fellow musicians a chance to play but i think her playing such a venue warranted a better support act. I saw her play here in England supported by Roy Harper who was fantastic its a shame she couldnt keep him out of retirement to finish the tour!

  • Comparing Joanna Newsom with anyone else is moot: she shares a genre with no one.
    Newsom is no longer the artist of “The Milk-Eyed Mender” (as truly wonderful as that album is) and might ponder retiring that material from her performances: she has evolved far beyond Pop Artist (if, in fact, anyone ever thought of her as a ‘Pop Artist’) into the realm of composition. There will be books written about her.
    Truthfully, I was not fond of the openers. The guitarist’s notes were pleasant(reminiscent of Steve Tibbetts) but lacked breadth and attack. Perhaps it was the sound system.