Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom
Paramount Theatre
Austin, Texas

Joanna Newsom is one of those artists that is hard to place. Is she “freak folk”? Is she classical? Is she pop? Your guess is as good as anyone else’s. But what makes Newsom such a treat to listen to is how dynamic her music is. One song can have so many melodies and rhythms that it can seem like a daunting task to keep up. And, she plays the harp, which isn’t exactly common in the music mainstream nowadays. However, Newsom has proved herself to be a musician that does not rely on what has preceded her to make something innovative and strong. Newsom proved with her second album, Ys, that she was intent on not being grouped into a particular genre. Newsom also exhibited to her audience that she does not fret about playing especial long structures, notably on the track, “Only Skin,” which, sadly, she did not perform. For the Austin show, Newsom also recruited drummer Neal Morgan, who did all the percussion arrangements on her newest record, Have One On Me, and Ryan Francesconi, who also arranged and conducted the album.

Before her set, it was clear that the setting was perfect. Each row rose higher and higher toward the back of the theatre, giving every member of the audience a clear view of the show. Newsom opened with fan-favorite “The Book of Right-On,” but changed it up by adding percussion and banjo rather than staying with her harp-and-voice formula. Her voice was in top shape considering that in 2009, she contracted vocal cord nodes, and she was unable to sing/talk/cry for two months. The result: her voice lost some of its range but gained a softer, more eloquent tone. This was audible particularly on the song, “Sawdust and Diamonds,” which she played last after the band exited the stage. Her aforementioned voice-and-harp combination ended the show perfectly, and Newsom used her voice splendidly, showing that she has adjusted to her new range.

Newsom played a variety of songs ranging from her first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, to her latest release, the two-hour, three-disc LP, Have One On Me. Her set, just inching over two hours, was like a spiritual, emotional journey. Each song takes you to a different place. Where exactly? It depends on the person. However, when Newsom plays, everything around her slowly disappears, and it seems as if she is playing a private show for the listener alone. On the song, “Go Long,” from her most recent release, it seemed as if everyone in the room disappeared. As she sang, “Who made you this way? Who made you this way? Who is going to bear your children?” it was almost like she was calling out to each member of the audience to re-examine their choices and seek absolution.

It’s not an overstatement to say that a Joanna Newsom show is anything less than an emotional experience. As people exited the venue, grown men and women were seen wiping away their tears. It’s just as well, considering that Newsom rarely tours, and rarely plays Austin. The last time she played in Austin was in 2006. But with a rare appearance comes a rare opportunity to see one of music’s most original acts today.

by Mark Lopez