Seeing a harp sitting on stage at Osaka’s small Sunsui venue Saturday night required a few moments to process. Joanna Newsom’s primary instrument makes sense in the context of an opera house or a Victorian garden party, but looked out of place in a darkened, beer-smelling underground club. It was like someone stole a prop out of a Disneyland ride and brought it to their Labor Day BBQ. This kinda jarring (I should note I’ve never seen a harp in person before) scene was a blessing though – the hard-to-place harpist has become a common name of the opera house and fancy music hall scene, not exactly the venues of choice for the Pitchfork set. Her show Saturday at Sunsui offered a rare opportunity to see her intricate compositions played in a smaller setting, all their beauty still ringing true.
Oh, and also a chance to hear new songs from her upcoming album Have One On Me. A nice bonus.
Tokyo’s Dry River String opened the evenings show. The band, a four piece live, lived up to all the Kings of Convenience-ness I expected from them – they used only guitars, a keyboard, minimal percussion and a toy piano to play hushed folk music. The group’s lead off with their speediest song, the cloudy-day stroll “An Able Politician Saves Oil” and Dry River String only became more laid back as their set went on. Some of the songs veered dangerously close to coffee house open mice night, but the addition of keyboard added enough kick to keep things going steady. Despite playing pleasantly enough, Dry River Sting sounded like a band better suited for home listening (a fact I am confirming at this moment) than an act to seek out live. Much like how I think Kings of Convenience would be actually, so they really are doing a good job gaining inspiration from them. Props to the cute frog shaker, though.
Joanna Newsom’s live show has been praised countless times before on a bevy of other websites, so let me just do a quick run through that confirms everything else ever written about her. Her storybook-worthy songs lose absolutely nothing in the translation from LP to stage, her work remaining as compelling and breathtaking as the recorded versions. Newsom’s voice, long the low-hanging critical fruit, sounds absolutely triumphant; it has become much more smooth, a big jump forward from the “acquired” singing found on her debut The Milk-Eyed Mender. She only warbles at particularly emotional moments now, though those tend to pop up frequently in her music. Watching her play the harp and create what she does is worth the price of admission alone…seeing Newsom tune the darn thing had me sold. Above all else, her music is deeply personal, and seeing her spill all this out isn’t just entertaining, it’s downright inspiring. Everything you’ve read about her show…right on.
So then, lets get to the news hook of this review: how did her new songs sound? The majority of Newsom’s set Saturday leaned towards the soon-to-be-released triple album Have One On Me, so that means maybe half of one disc. Still, the night offered some clues as to what the world can expect later this month. Newsom was joined by a drummer and a multi-instrumentalist, who she said appeared on the album. Based on the new material played at Sunsui, Newsom’s cast away the “freak” tag completely and embraced folk completely. The trio (harp, drums, whatever the other guy felt like playing) played country-tinged, at times nearly Appalachian (!) songs. Not a huge revelation if you’ve given the recently released “81” (played this night gorgeously by Newsom alone), which has a slight Southern feel to it. Not even talking about the “seceded from the Union” line. Lyrically, you still need several scrolls-worth of paper to map out what’s going on in these songs, but Newsom still sounds achingly personal the entire time.
To grease the hype spokes up a little more, lets focus on one song in particular that absolutely floored. Presumably the title track to Have One On Me (or at least the track where she says that line multiple times), this longer number sounded like an equal to any of Ys’ epics. Opening with just strings, Newsom sings about guards patrolling…something before the song becomes a bit more jaunty as she sings about “a daddy long legs” in her house. The big moment comes when the multi-instrumentalist switches from guitar to recorder…the song suddenly transformed into an unhinged collection of harp playing and drum slams, Newsom’s intricate sounds suddenly bursting open into slight chaos. At the center of it are her vocals, sounding very train-of-thougt, a departure from her usual carefully penned poetry. Things settle back down and everything comes full circle. It’s a gem and I’m excited to hear it on the triple LP.
As for her older songs, the touring trio offered some slightly different takes on Newsom’s finest. “Bridges And Balloons” received a tad bit of ooomph courtesy some subdued drums and backing vocals, while Ys’ opener “Emily’s” Van Dyke Park’s manufactured orchestra movements were successfully replaced by guitar, banjo and a little drumming. The biggest makeover came on initial set closer “Peach, Plum, Pear,” the rolling string-play of the original transformed into a sharper, slower arrangement. Newsom’s voice flailed about wildly on the album cut, but live she took her time with the lyrics and let them hang around for extra emphasis. It was an excellent set closer…until she came out alone for the encore and nailed “Sawdust And Diamonds” perfectly. Just her words darting between her fragile system of strings. Absolutely gorgeous.
Can three CDs of Joanna Newsom possibly work? I’m going with it’ll either be a monster of an album or a monster disappointment. After seeing her live in Osaka…I’m feeling pretty good about the former.