Those walking in late to Wednesday night’s concert at the Jefferson Theater might have mistaken it for a comedy show. “Saturday Night Live” cast member Fred Armisen was shaking a tambourine onstage, the audience wore lovestruck grins, and at the grand piano, a long sheet of hair dangling over her shoulders, Joanna Newsom looked something like Cousin Itt.
Had it been a comedy show, longtime fans wouldn’t be surprised to see that the enigmatic songwriter had shifted shapes yet again. Over three albums Newsom has shown a capacity for reinvention that’s otherwise reserved for the likes of Madonna, and a wide-eyed fan base worthy of Bob Dylan. On Wednesday she led her band—two violins, trombone, guitar and drums and Newsom switching between harp and piano—through a 90-minute set of dizzyingly complex new songs.
Multi-instrumentalist and touring partner Brian Francesconi, who arranged the material, switched between electric guitar, banjo, tambra and a Bulgarian flute called a kaval. Like Van Dyke Parks’ arrangements on 2006’s Ys, Francesconi’s arrangements felt almost convectional, burying and unearthing the emotional threads in Newsom’s colossal compositions. The audience proved patient, even as songs like “Have One On Me” and “In California” stretched well beyond the seven minute mark. Some heads even bobbed when “Good Intentions Paving Company” hit its groove—perhaps a sight never before seen at a Joanna Newsom concert.
But this is a new Joanna Newsom. Have One On Me, released last month to a ridiculous amount of fanfare, is a sprawling work that she recently called her “early ’70s California singer-songwriter album.” Some of the new songs are odes to her hometown of Nevada City, California (a home she shares with composer Terry Riley and poet Gary Snyder); others are odes to her lover (rumored to be Andy Samberg of “Saturday Night Live”). The songs are welcoming, but they flutter between the emotional extremes that her older material nestles into. But the record’s length alone points to a patience and rigor that’s otherwise missing in the popular music. Especially that of the generation of twitterers that sat, silent and enraptured, for the entirety of her set.
Newsom’s gifts are unmistakable, whether you’re the type to zero in on the lyrics, or the music. On “Easy,” Newsom sings of being “tested and pained by what lays beyond” her bed, and “dulling and dumbing in the service of the heart alone.” Moments like these sound like a lost John Keats poem, set to a Randy Newman score. And she ripped away on that harp all the while.
Perhaps the night’s biggest surprise was how much Newsom’s voice has, in a conventional sense, improved. The new Newsom is less Daniel Johnston, more Joni Mitchell. Gone are the squeaks, the accidental quaver—the aspects of her voice reminded listeners that she was, in fact, human. If Wednesday’s show suffered, it was for the lack of flaws. Where was the raw intimacy? The transcendent feeling of understanding a music that’s unlistenable to others? The old songs?
But then again, what critic in his right mind would question Joanna Newsom?