Joanna Newsom

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  • Robin Pecknold
Harvest Sun @ Philharmonic Hall 3/3/16

After the genre-defining Have One On Me – a three disc litany of cryptic wordplay and bewitching, luxuriant performance – a period of creative withdrawal duly arrived for the enigmatic JOANNA NEWSOM. She married actor/comedian Andy Samberg and made a surprising detour into film, with an appearance as a flower-child-mystic in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. I began to rue the missed opportunity of seeing a dizzying songstress at the peak of her career. But, fortunately, she returned on fine form last year with Divers – a profound and deeply affecting masterpiece, and unquestionably one of the albums of 2015. You can only imagine my delight when Harvest Sun then booked the virtuoso harpist for the Philharmonic Hall – a venue made for acoustically demanding timbres and sumptuously arranged material.

“I hope you’re ready for one of the greatest songwriters of our time,” declares the evening’s eminent support, ROBIN PECKNOLD, in anticipation of his host. It must be said, the Fleet Foxes frontman cuts a conspicuously singular figure, road testing solo material that includes a cover of The Five Keys’ Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind. With the long-awaited follow up to Helplessness Blues still on hold, it’s heartening to hear Pecknold bring the treasures of the Fleet Foxes trove to the Philharmonic. Tiger Mountain Peasant Song draws a yelp of satisfaction from the increasingly attentive crowd, while Montezuma consolidates a performance from an inspired choice of opening act, his lofty melody and evocative lyrics perfectly priming the hall for the ensuing Ms. Newsom.

Under a banner of Divers artwork, instruments are strewn neatly across the stage; marimbas and all manner of strings await the band beneath the misty precipice. Joanna Newsom enters to warm applause taking her place at the imposing harp. Warming the fingers with an abridged Bridges And Balloons from debut album Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom wows from the off as her hands pluck in an alternating and mesmerising tandem. It’s abundantly clear that we’re witnessing a unique talent, a hugely accomplished master of her craft. Seamlessly, we arrive at Divers overture Anecdotes: the band take their cues – brother Pete Newsom, Have One On Me maestro Ryan Francesconi, and violinists Mirabai Peart and Veronique Serret – and add their voices gradually to the divine sound. Divers makes an impact immediately with its extended finger drum intro and shimmering strings, and is the first track to exhibit the sheer elasticity of Newsom’s otherworldly warbling and off-hand poetry. She skirts wildly from the melody to the periphery of her range, a trick that must be endlessly referenced with Kate Bush or Joni Mitchell. For me, I am reminded of David Bowie’s performance in The Elephant Man, her vocals masterfully contorted to the narrative of the performance. We are dazzled by Go Long and Sapokanikan, the latter a rollicking ragtime run through of Native American oppression that’s densely layered with a trail of clues (Shelley, Titian, Demeter) that have so besotted Newsom’s investigative fanbase, affectionately christened “the Delvers”.

The tuning of 47 orchestral harp strings allows for an impromptu Q&A from her ever curious audience. In a light and witty exchange, we learn that brother Pete is single and Joanna is reading The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin. We also discover her striking floor length pink and ocean blue dress is specially made for the tour by Michael Van der Ham. She thanks us for noticing before sincerely expressing, “I hope we can come back sooner than five years!” The feeling is, of course, mutual, as a veritably gushing ovation follows the encore of Good Intentions Paving Co. Joanna Newsom has outgrown the kooky caricature and obvious comparisons: she is, in fact, one of the coolest songwriters of our time.

Philip Morris / @mauricedesade

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