Photo: Clayton Hauck
It’s been almost ten years since Joanna Newsom released The Milk-Eyed Mender, an album that helped shepherd the freak folk movement into indie culture. Newsom, along with folks such as Devendra Banhart and Coco Rosie, is a novelty act: She plays harp, she has an elfish stage presence, and she writes songs that are sprawling, cerebral, and syncopated (she’s a fan of the three against two rhythm).
But now, nearly a decade later, Newsom’s harp strumming and distinct throaty voice is tired, and her novelty alone is not enough to carry a set.
When Newsom walked on stage on Friday, her long ponytail swinging behind her, she was nervous. As she sat down at her harp and began “Bridges and Balloons,” one onlooker said to me, “She’s so unadorned, she seems to naked up there.” It’s true, her sound was small and her fingers tense (fabulous harp players have incredibly graceful hands), and her music melodies barely filled the stage. Newsom’s nerves seemed to plague her harp-playing most; a shame considering the world premiere harp makers, Lyon & Healy, are just a few blocks from Union Park. At one point she even admitted her slippery fingers to the audience. “I want to blame the harp,” laughed Newsom, “but I think I’m just playing the wrong notes.”
The folkstress was also in a tough spot, squeezed between Angel Olsen, whose vocal power is transformative, and Bjork, who is an icon and no doubt inspired Newsom (read: Vespertine). But unlike the ladies who bookended her, Newsom’s set had no journey and no dramatic arc. Newsom would benefit from a smaller venue where her story-telling could really shine.
“Newsom really needs a band,” someone said toward the end of the set. “There are no layers.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.