I got one blurry shot of Newsom before security gave me the stank eye.
I’ve been a fan of Joanna Newsom since 2005, when I saw her at a Jeff Tweedy-curated, Wired magazine-sponsored concert at the Vic. The theme of the concert was the future of music, and she was on the bill, along with The Handsome Family.
The Handsome Family played first, and I thought, well, if this is the future of music, it sucks. Then some of the stagehands dragged a whopping gold harp on stage. Newsom, a pixie of a girl, came wandering out, straddled the harp like a bull, and started plucking away.
I’ve been a fan ever since. And while I’m not the rabid type, last night I did drag my friend Elizabeth up to Milwaukee to see Newsom play. It was justifiable because the show was her only Midwest stop on her current, five-city orchestral tour. Basically, she played an entire album (Y’s) alongside 28 classical musicians from the Milwaukee Symphony, kind of along the lines of what The Decemberists did earlier this summer in Millennium Park. The difference is that Newsom’s songs were originally scored this way on the album (The Decemberists hired someone to rescore their songs), and it was so nearly perfect that the audience sat completely still, in dead silence, as she navigated the corps of musicians through 17-minute songs. When she played solo, the orchestra members were rapt—it looked, at least to me, that she was blowing them away as well.
I understand why some folks can’t tolerate Newsom’s stuff. Her voice does sounds like a bit like a little girl trapped in a well. Her lyrics are curious, more like poems at a madrigal feast than anything in the current canon of indie rock. But I like that she’s different. I like that she’s not easily defined. I like that she doesn’t sound like Death Cab or Ryan Adams. Heck, if this is the future of music, bring it on.
Photograph: Cassie Walker