The MusicNOW Festival returned to Cincinnati for its fifth year last week, and for the first time I was able to attend. Though I wasn’t able to go all three nights — I missed the closing night with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver — the two shows I was able to attend were special, unique, and breathtaking.
MusicNOW began in 2006 and is the brainchild of Bryce Dessner, Cincinnati native and member of the acclaimed indie rock band the National. The festival “invites contemporary music and artists that take risks and do not fit neatly into categories.”
It’s become known for its eclectic lineups — past participants include Grizzly Bear, Andrew Bird, Kronos Quartet, My Brightest Diamond, Bill Frisell, Glenn Kotche (of Wilco), and Amiina — as well as unusual festival-only collaborations and commissions and a unique atmosphere provided by the gorgeous venue, Memorial Hall, and artist Karl Jensen’s incredible festival-art installations, which hang on either side of the stage.
This year’s lineup was arguably the strongest yet. Opening night brought harpist-pianist-singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, with opener Robin Pecknold of the indie-folk band Fleet Foxes performing a rare solo set. Night two featured contemporary music ensemble yMusic and one of my current favorite artists, St. Vincent. The festival concluded with performances from saxophonist Colin Stetson and, as previously mentioned, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (and, as it turned out, some special guests — I’m still kind of bitter I didn’t get to go).
At first I’d only planned to attend the second and third nights of the festival. I was particularly excited about St. Vincent’s performance, as the show of hers I’d seen on an earlier leg of the tour supporting her latest release, Actor, was one of my favorites of last year. But I decided I really wanted to understand what so many of my friends loved about Joanna Newsom and so I bought a ticket for her gig as well Unfortunately, three-day passes and tickets for the Justin Vernon gig were gone by the time I was able to buy them, so Newsom and St. Vincent would be it for me.
I have been trying to figure out the appeal of Joanna Newsom for quite some time. Many of my friends adore her music and have told me for awhile that I would love her. So, when her second album, Ys came out, I gave it a go — and I hated it. I thought the music itself was gorgeous, but her voice got on my last nerve and I couldn’t get past that.
When her latest album, the 3-CD opus Have One on Me, was released earlier this year, and all I read were rave reviews, I thought I’d give it a listen to see if it would change my mind about her music. But then I decided that instead, I’d wait until I saw her at MusicNOW because many times in the past, I’ve been won over by live performances from artists about whom I was previously unsure.
For the first night of the festival, I sat in the balcony and had a great view of the gorgeous stage. Memorial Hall is a lovely venue and was the perfect setting for the show we were about to see.
The evening began with Dessner coming on stage to say a few words of welcome. He then introduced the show’s opener, Pecknold, by telling told a story about the National missing their set at the Sasquatch Music Festival a few years ago and the organizers asking if their slot could be given to an up-and-coming Seattle-area band, Fleet Foxes. They agreed and not long after, to paraphrase Dessner, Fleet Foxes became one of the “biggest bands in the world,” which Pecknold later jokingly said he had the numbers to prove that statement wrong.
Pecknold walked on stage dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, hair pulled back in a samurai-style bun. After a digging in his pocket for a guitar pick, he launched into his set, which was a combination of new songs and familiar Fleet Foxes material, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. He told the audience that many of the songs he was playing were only half-finished and introduced one song as “part of a 12-part epic.”
In between songs, he attempted some banter, but admitted that he’s not the most natural solo performer. At one point, he asked the audience if anyone had been a victim of a famous email phishing scam and when no one said anything, he laughed incredulously and then moved on to the next song. He later revisited the phishing scam, informing the audience that his email was hacked that day and the scammer sent out an email to all of his contacts claiming that he was stranded in Wales and needed money. He then launched into the last part of his set, getting a standing ovation from the audience. Overall, I thought his set was fantastic and it definitely made me want to give his band’s music a closer listen.
After Pecknold finished, we were informed that it would be a 40-minute wait before Newsom’s set would begin because she needed to tune her harp. The audience, myself included, didn’t seem very thrilled, especially since many of us had to wait almost an hour past the advertised doors-open time to get in. Eventually, Newsom and two members of her backing band came onstage and we were off.
Having very little knowledge about her music or live performances, other than the couple of times I listened to Ys, I had no expectations of how or what she would play. I knew that not being familiar with her material would make it more difficult to keep track of the setlist — my notebook is filled with pages of lyrics so that I could identify songs later — but I felt that going in blind, so to speak, would best. And I made a pact with myself to keep an open mind about her voice, since that was the biggest problem I had with her music.
Newsom walked on stage wearing a vintage floral dress and high-heeled slingbacks that looked very ’80s. She took her place behind the harp and launched into the first song, “Bridges and Balloons,” from her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender, followed by “In California” from the new album. As I listened, I found myself concentrating on the one thing I promised myself I wouldn’t get hung up on — her voice. Looking at my notes, I wrote down that if you took the voices of Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Tori Amos and Neko Case in a blender, along with the sound of a cat’s meow, that would be a good representation of Newsom’s voice. That’s probably unfair and simplistic, but it’s what I heard.
The remainder of the set was mostly comprised of new material, with only two songs coming from previous albums — “The Book of Right-On” from The Milk-Eyed Mender and “Monkey & Bear” from Ys. As I expected would happen, there were various pauses in the set so Newsom could tune the harp. During the longest break, she encouraged her band to conduct a Q&A session with the audience, which turned out to be quite entertaining. I was pleasantly surprised at how funny she and her band were. I don’t know why, but I had just assumed that they would be more serious and not talk to the audience much; I’m glad I was wrong.
One of the best moments of the evening came when Robin Pecknold and a young woman whose name I can’t recall came on stage to provide “clapping percussion” during “Good Intentions Pavement Company.” They seemed a little extraneous to the song, but no one in the audience seemed to care, since they were excited to see him back on stage. Unexpectedly, the end of the song seamlessly morphed into “Happy Birthday,” which led to an audience sing-along, directed at Pecknold, whose birthday was that day. He seemed genuinely shocked at this turn of events, especially when someone came from backstage carrying a small cake, candles lit. It was all very sweet, especially since it really was a complete surprise to him.
The show was a long one — it didn’t end until close to midnight — mostly due to the fact that Newsom wasn’t given a curfew, so the 40-minute harp-tuning delay wasn’t a factor in how long her set would be. I thought a lot about what I experienced as I drove home and I have to admit that I was quite impressed. She’s a charming and mesmerizing performer. The intricacies of her arrangements translated quite beautifully live and her voice really didn’t give me much pause. I’m still not 100 percent sold on Newsom and her music, but my enjoyment of her live show has encouraged me to give her another chance.
Joanna’s full set:
Bridges and Balloons
Soft as Chalk
The Book of Right-On
Have One on Me
Good Intentions Paving Company (with “Happy Birthday”)
Monkey & Bear
Encore: Baby Birch