A Joanna Newsom album has never sounded as good as she did when she played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last Thursday. Even the most middling of fans, the most ardent of critics, could not possibly have walked away unswayed by the remarkable skill and charm she emanated throughout the evening.
Accompanied by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the emphasis of the performance was Ys, her critically-acclaimed collaboration with Van Dyke Parks from 2006. Painstakingly unique, it was a cultish hit. Most reacted with one extreme or another, slathering it with hyperbolic praise or disdain (yours truly called it one of the three “worst” albums of 2006). [Ed.'s Note: Yours truly has had his own less-than-positive experience with Newsom's music.]
With the support of an orchestra, it was suddenly easy to understand what it is that people see in this epic composition. Where the record sounds uneven, somewhat plodding and jarring, the live performance was beautiful to an emotionally moving degree. Its rhythms and cadences were more apparent, as was its grace. Somehow, Newsom’s polarizing voice was mollified.
The Orchestra was the frozen lake she skated across, playing a vital supporting role, but far from the focus of the evening. Newsom was positively transfixing. Her hands fluttered across the harp while she cooed winsome phrases of romantic devotion, such as “I will swallow your sadness and eat your cold clay / just to lift your long face” from “Sawdust & Diamonds,” or “darling, there’s a place for us / can we go before I turn to dust?” in “Monkey and Bear.” The 20-something minute long songs scooted past as quickly as those that were half that length, and the Ys portion of the evening was over all too soon.
Joanna Newsom: “Sawdust & Diamonds” (download)
Much like Sufjan Stevens’ performance at BAM in November, Newsom followed her grandiose creation with a set selected from shorter material. Changing into a vintage-looking bright pink cocktail dress that emphasized her pixieness (she wore a long, serious black gown for the first half), she returned from the intermission with a small band featuring drums, violin, and banjo to perform other material.
The trance of the first half was still in effect, and as such, it was easy to enjoy but hard to get lost in the shorter, simpler songs from Milk-Eyed Mender. Ys with the Orchestra was far too powerful to be eclipsed. The second half wasn’t without standouts, though. It boasted a flirtier rendition of “Inflammatory Writ,” an encore cover of Karen Dalton’s “Same Old Man,” and two new songs, both even more promising than her work thus far. She’s surely got big things in store.
Joanna Newsom: “Inflammatory Writ” (download)
At the end of the night, the front of Newsom’s harp caught the blue stage lights and looked as if it was glowing. It was a complementary visual for the spritely harp player, who was rather radiant herself.
Image courtesy flickr user ezola