There is a certain anxiety about seeing Joanna Newsom live. A nervous energy that begins at the molecular level and gets so intense that, as soon as the house lights come down, you feel like you just might disintegrate. It's what dogs feel like when they hear a familiar car pull into the garage. Then, Newsom saddles up behind the harp, and for the next two hours, she justifies every quiver in your bloodstream.
This is how it went last night at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul as Newsom, touring in support of her October release Divers, played for a reverent crowd.
Critics have called Divers Newsom's most approachable music in her 11-year career, but when the 33-year-old harpist appears on stage, nothing about her feels approachable. It is intimidating just to be in her presence, and as she played the first notes of "Bridges and Balloons," you could feel your chest fill and your skin fever.
"Anecdotes," the followup, unsettled the aorta. You could've synced your breath to the jerks of Newsom's shoulders as she moved up and down the keyboard of her piano on "Soft as Chalk." It the kind of arresting sequence where your top molars don't touch your bottom molars until you realize that you have to swallow.
That's not to say that Newsom's entire performance was so nerve-wrackingly composed. The Californian songwriter is perhaps one of the most magnanimous and gravitational personalities in the music scene today, and her affable banter added some levity to the evening. Following the opening sequence, she slipped into "Emily," a song she dedicated to her father, who was in attendance watching her and her brother Pete, garnering a chorus of awwwws.
From there, she began what was to be the emotional anchor of the night — a 12-minute overture that cycles through quiet repose and volatile bursts of longing — a song that dissolves the barrier between joy and anguish. That feat was matched by the grimaces Newsom labored through to sing poetic lines like, "Leave your troubles here where the tugboats sheer the water from the water." The performance earned a nearly unabating round of applause.
Then, seamlessly, Newsom transitioned into an informal Q&A as she tuned her harp. She lauded the new Bjork album and gave Pete shit for still being single. She gave detailed responses to questions about her favorite composers and talked about covering songs by her husband's joke-rap group, the Lonely Island. Through the 15-minute decompression, it became clear that Newsom's genius is not merely in her dexterity or polyrhythmic arrangements. It is her ability to create moods.
Though Newsom's records are carefully and deliberately arranged, the true artistic complexity of the songs does not come into light until they're seen in the live setting. Her shows are deeply theatrical — with players, including Newsom herself, rotating instruments mid-song like a costume change and bouts of percussion that jut into the song like a noisy prop. The show was not so much about her music, but the way it moves.
The way that Newsom sublimated herself into the background during "Goose Eggs," or how the sudden, tympanic march on layers on the drone of keyboards on "Leaving the City." As Newsom turned in a much more intense, orchestral rendition of Milk-Eyed Mender classic "Peach, Plum, Pear," each swell and retreat felt so vivid and immediate. Songs like "Cosmia" and "Time, As a Symptom" are living compositions. As they streamed out of her busy hands, you could sense the emotional chaos they were born from.
A short, cathartic ovation gave way to a one-song encore, in which Newsom regaled the audience with "Baby Birch" — a virtuosic ode from 2010's Have One on Me. "Be at peace, baby, and be gone" were the words left dissolving through the air as she closed the nine-and-a-half-minute song. In the din following Newsom's final bow — and after two hours of exorcising anxieties from behind her harp — that peace was finally possible.
Critic's bias: I've been a Newsom devotee since 2004, a story I discuss here. I think I'm, by nature, incapable of saying anything bad about her or her music. I feel like I've righted a cosmic wrong by finally seeing her live.
Notes on the opener: The bare, carefully plucked stylings of Portland's Alela Diane and Ryan Francesconi were an appropriate — if not overly earnest — opener to the evening. They played a set halfway between busking and baroque and charmed the crowd with their disbelief over Minnesota's encroaching winter. A shame that we didn't get to see the full breadth of Francesconi's talent until he sat down to play a panoply of instruments with Newsom.
The crowd: Appropriately bookish.
Overheard in the crowd: Nary a sneeze. Aside from the prolonged applause sessions between songs, there was utter silence. This was a fully rapt crowd.
Bridges and Balloons
Soft as Chalk
Harp tuning interlude and Q&A
Waltz of the 101st Lightborne
Have One on Me
Peach, Plum, Pear
Leaving the City
Time, As a Symptom