NOISE: Joanna Newsom overwhelms in SF

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Guardian contributor Max Goldberg caught Joanna Newsom's recent performance at Great American Music Hall. Here's his review:

Sans bangs and decked in red, Joanna Newsom played the last of a sold-out three-night stand at the Great American Music Hall Wednesday, Dec. 20. It was a performance concentrated and sustained enough to feel like a dream: no small thing given the general crush of people.

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Joanna Newsom in all her furry finery.

The show, with its complete performance of Ys (Drag City), didn’t feel like a revelation so much as an acknowledgment (and a celebration with many from Nevada City, Newsoms and otherwise, in attendance. Ex-boyfriend Noah Georgeson and brother Pete Newsom turned in a flimsy opening set). Part of this was due to its being the last date of a seven-week tour, and part of it was because of the classical, note-for-note nature of the performance. Joanna Newsom conceived of this suite of songs, sweated it out, and we, her fans, have listened and begun to discover its place in our lives. Last night these paths converged.

The music’s live arrangements -- Van Dykes Parks’s dense orchestrations were pared down for a five-piece, Balkan-tinged band -- certainly added new shades, especially in the way Neal Morgan’s thudding drums sent the climaxes marching forward, as well as the lovely steel-strung sound-textures traded back and forth by Kevin Barker (banjo, acoustic guitar) and Ryan Francesconi (tambura, bouzouki, acoustic guitar). And much as Smogster (and current Newsom beau) Bill Callahan was missed for “Only Skin”’s final summons, Morgan’s lilting voice was the perfect counterpoint for Newsom’s – his softened hers, made hers sound a bit more country. Newsom’s maturation as a singer was one way the songs from The Milk-Eyed Mender (she book-ended Ys with “Bridges and Balloons,” “The Book of Right-On,” “Sadie,” and “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie”) were recast. Her voice is still awestruck, but it’s lost some of its hiccup -- smoothed out so that you can still see the folds -- for Ys.

I was struck by how simple the songs from the first album seemed post-Ys, almost like little lullabies (especially closer “Clam, Crab…”). The scale of the new compositions is such that the old songs feel like a breath, something that can be plainly felt rather than fought out, gnashed, destroyed, and won over again and again. The way she so fearlessly gives herself over to soaring on the back of some emotion or image and then pulls back to take a longer view, often recalling a line and melody from earlier in the song, is frankly overwhelming. Time and time again, she plunges into a fast-moving river, all the while being extraordinarily careful not to let us let go of those movements that brought us into the song in the first place. Endurance is certainly a factor here, and when she brought the band back out in the encore for a new long song, the scales tipped: it was too much -- we were spent. It’s no wonder given the way the listeners on the Great American’s upper-levels seemed to lean over the balcony’s edge. With all eyes on Newsom, the focus was at times nearly unbearable.

As always, it was a treat to see her play the harp, those spindly hands realizing the complex rhythm-melody interlays as if they were talking to one another. I caught myself waiting for the long, low strings to be plucked to see (and feel) their resonance. With Ys, she was directing as much as playing, shaping the album anew rather than running it through -- she took hold of the notes and found the words, each one the right one.