April 6, 2010

Newsom's quirks charm Chicago

Joanna Newsom’s performance at Vic Theater this past Saturday night was a successful end to her tour for her new album, Have One On Me. Newsom’s music, a surprisingly enthralling mix of harp, piano, and romantic imagery, sold out the venue. Despite the unforeseen absence of the opening act, Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, the show was genial and relaxed, with Newsom and her band often joking and talking with the audience between songs.

One might expect many of Newsom’s songs to lack cohesion when played live due to their great intricacy—the layering of instrumentation and Newsom’s own complicated vocals. However, Newsom’s voice was just as eerie, high-pitched, and charismatic as on her records and served as the centerpiece for each­ song.

And if anything, the diversity of instrumentation in Newsom’s music was made more evident and impressive by the live performance. The percussionist, guitarist, violinists, and trombonist each held their own while still complimenting Newsom, who played both harp and piano.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the extreme popularity of her 2006 album Ys, Newsom stuck primarily to material from Have One On Me and even played more songs from her 2004 album The Milk-Eyed Mender. In fact, she didn’t play much at all from Ys.

This successful departure from her most well-known album indicates the talent and sincerity that Newsom brought to her stage performance. While Have One On Me still echoes the song structure and enigmatic imagery of Ys, it is not a mere rehashing.

The abundance of the album’s content (clocking in at nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes), its more autobiographical themes, and greater variation in vocals all contributed to an album distinct from her earlier releases, and the songs translated well from the recording studio to a live performance.

Onstage, the band’s chemistry was evident: Newsom was quick to praise her band members and careful not to take all the audience’s attention for herself.

During the performance of “Easy,” which featured only Newsom and her percussionist, Neal Morgan, all eyes were on the performers, yet the band’s expressions were rapt, as if they hadn’t already spent an entire tour with Newsom. The band members’ visible respect was mirrored by the audience, who was equally in awe of Newsom’s presence.

As noted by one of my fellow concertgoers, Newsom’s fans seemed to feel they had a personal connection with her, as if she were playing especially for them. During the show, Newsom received both a gift and a bouquet of flowers from audience members, the latter given during a spontaneous question session with the band members while Newsom tuned her harp.

Though most of the show’s songs were at least six minutes long, the time never dragged, and it seemed like the concert finished sooner than anyone desired, leaving behind a dazed, captivated, and devoted crowd.