Thankyou for the Newsic

Published

Annabel Mehran

Joanna Newsom
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
20/09/10

So, we’re living in an age of deafening headphones and noise worship; and feedback (as in cyclical noise) is an element that shocks few music lovers these days. Indeed, it positively delights many. So it’s a sobering and uneasy experience to witness a somewhat distressed Joanna Newsom squirming in discomfort when dogged by a particularly nasty hissing one song into her performance tonight.

This kind of thing can have a serious, immediate effect on the sensitized ears of the classically trained. It’s a shame that the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, for all its pomp, circumstance and wildly over-priced tickets, can’t get a handle on this, and prevent these initial anxieties.

Luckily this appears to have little effect on the overall performance. On the basis of her three LP’s, you’d be forgiven for associating the crystal tones of a harp with notions of gentle innocence and clarity. The visual element of Newsom shifting about on the stool, literally wrestling with a six foot instrument, is arresting, and reveals a messy, emotional turbulence you’d more readily associate with the jagged world of guitar based singer-songwriters. Tonight’s set is a collection from across the harpist’s back-catalogue, featuring a minimal line up compared to the orchestras she has previously played with.

The band features collaborators Neal Morgan and Ryan Francesconi who, as well as feeding into the sound a range of string instruments and some very emotive, earthy drumming, were responsible for some of the song-writing to be found on latest release Have One on Me, and re-arranging and shortening some of Newsom’s grander creations. Completing the line up are session muscians taking up violins and the trombone, plus a few other surprises.

It genuinely works well. The group’s sound is organic and punctuated, never overwhelming. As a result, this tends to ground the audience in the immediate situation – Newsom’s storytelling is complex, and she wouldn’t want you to get lost. Respite comes in the form of the shimmering spaces created by Newsom’s expertly executed solo harp flourishes, unleashed in tasteful frequency (“That last one gave me a blister!” she complains after a particularly gruelling work-out). Part of what’s so good about what is going on tonight is for all their arpeggios and seamless chord changes, Newsom and co. never comes off as pretentious, aloof, or otherwise unreachable; each song resonates with that folk-based spirit of welcome that has characterised much of her work.

This kind of execution, a technical brilliance which radiates a certain effortlessness and freedom, is rare, and despite some technical difficulties and a somewhat tepid atmosphere, tonight’s performance is a pleasure to witness.

Jean-Xavier Boucherat