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Monday, April 5, 2010

Joanna Newsom @ The Pabst Theater

April 2, 2010

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Last time Joanna Newsom played the Pabst Theater she was on tour with a well-used 29-piece orchestra, which painstakingly reconstructed the labyrinthine arrangements of her 2006 album, Ys. For her return appearance Friday night, though, Newsom pared her band down to a lean five-piece ensemble, accommodating the leaner lineup with scaled-back rearrangements that left the band plenty of downtime, leaving the spotlight squarely on Newsom and her harp. The more intimate treatment was fitting for a tour behind Newsom’s new album, Have One on Me. Ys sought to awe through sheer scale and grandeur, but Have One on Me is a much looser, freer record, despite what its daunting two-hour playing time suggests.

Have One on Me is also her most personal album, the first that feels more about Joanna Newsom than about Joanna Newsom’s quixotic fantasies. Marrying her signature medieval imagery with overtly autobiographical shadings, Newsom’s new songs ruminate on intertwining themes of love, madness and homecoming. On “Have One on Me,” Newsom imagines the exiled mistress of Bavarian King Ludwig II poisoning her lover with a spiteful toast that lends both the album its title. On “In California,” Newsom drops the historical pretenses altogether, setting the action in her beloved home state, which she reveals as the secret to her otherwise guarded heart. When Cupid’s arrow finally lands, it strikes deep. “Sometimes I am so in love with you,” she chimes, “like a little clock that trembles on the edge of the hour/ only ever callings out, ‘Cuckoo, cuckoo.’” Later in the song, she taunts herself with those words in a menacing refrain: “Coo-koo; coo-koo.”

“In California” was a highlight of Newsom’s set Friday, a nine-minute downpour of mixed emotions, with each harried couplet doubling down on the stakes of the last. “Some nights I just never go to sleep at all,” Newsom exclaimed, “and I stand/ shaking in the doorway like a sentinel, all alone, bracing like the bow upon a ship, and fully abandoning any thought of anywhere but home.” Her band held back, emerging only periodically to stress Newsom’s sentiments with austere punctuations.

Their orchestrations were taut and clever, but Newsom probably could have forgone the band altogether and the show wouldn’t have suffered. Over the years she’s grown more comfortable on stage, more capable of filling it on her own. Her voice has mellowed in inviting ways, too, loosing some of the tart edge that drove away so many listeners. She’s shaped it into an instrument with the same expressive, pleasantly hypnotic qualities as her harp, and Friday night she used it to sell some of her most candid songs yet.


Photo by CJ Foeckler 

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