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Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Soft As Chalk

Joanna Newsom at The Phoenix in Toronto

Photo By Frank YangFrank YangI don’t know exactly when I became a Joanna Newsom fan. Though I’d certainly heard people talk about her, my first exposure to her music wasn’t through either of her first two records but by seeing her live on her first visit to Toronto in October 2006 – a breathtaking performance that had me picking up The Milk-Eyed Mender almost immediately thereafter and the follow-up Ys when it came out later that year, but even then I didn’t listen to them all that much. They were my go-to records for when I was in the mood for ornate and expansive, harp-led folk music, sure, but for some reason that wasn’t that often.

Even so, I was still amongst those who picked up her new triple-album Have One On Me on the day of release, and while you’d think that two hours of Joanna Newsom for anyone less than a fanatic would be overwhelming, I instead found it surprisingly immersive and immediate. It’s less quirky than Mender and less epic than Ys, but to my ears, more fully realized. Whereas the talking points for her earlier records focused on her unusual voice or the elaborate orchestrations that adorned her compositions, the only thing worth talking about on Have One On Me is the songs themselves. It’s as though she’s developed enough confidence in her craft to no longer hide behind an affected singing style or lush orchestrations, and though on paper it makes her more conventional, the sheer quality of the work makes that complaint null and void. If I wasn’t a huge Joanna Newsom fan before hearing Have One On Me, I certainly was by the time side 6 hit the runout groove.

As such, I fit right in with the rest of sold-out crowd packed into the Phoenix on Saturday night, breathlessly awaiting her first appearance in Toronto in three and a half years. And waiting. It was at least 20 minutes past her scheduled start time before the curtains were drawn back and her band’s setup revealed. Whereas her last visit was just her solo, this time she brought a five-piece backing band – drums, horn, strings and guitar – to help recreate the arrangements on the record and she herself would start things off not at her signature harp, but the grand piano. Leading off with “Easy”, Newsom managed the impressive feat of utterly silencing 1000 people as she played, all of whom were hanging on every note she played, every word she sang.

After a trio of songs on the piano – and after the allotted time for photography was over, hence the piano-only gallery – Newsom moved to the harp for “In California” and remained there for the remainder of the set. For all the elegance of the music, the first part of the set was marked by some endearingly grounded interaction from Newsom and her band. She forgot the words to “The Book Of Right-On” and then took an extended break to tune her harp, leaving drummer Neal Morgan to chat with the crowd, answer questions and generally buy time. Time which would turn out to be at a premium, as the Phoenix’s looming curfew would put a hard cap on the proceedings. Getting back down to business, they played “No Provenance” and the title track from the new record before closing with the sole Ys cut, “Emily”. Everything was uniformly gorgeous-sounding, the Phoenix never sounding better. The only source of disappointment on the evening was that it ended at 9PM, though after some (myself included) had left – the house lights and music were on! – the stalwarts managed to call Newsom and her band back for an encore. I’m sorry I missed that reading of “Baby Birch”, but it in no way diminishes the hour of music I did get to take in. Just as I said after her last show…. Amazing.

The National Post, The Globe & Mail, Exclaim and Chart all have reviews of the show and share the complaint that the set was too short. I agree, but would point out that Newsom’s Mod Club show wasn’t more than an hour long and while I’ve never played a harp, I imagine it’s pretty fatiguing – especially for 10-minute stretches whilst singing. She was toweling herself off after the more sprawling numbers. I don’t know if she does especially long shows, curfew or not? Maybe we’ll find out when her show in Washington DC on March 23 is webcast live on NPR.

Photos: Joanna Newsom @ The Phoenix – March 13, 2010
Video: Joanna Newsom – “The Sprout & The Bean”

Gibson Guitars talks to Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers about his guitars (natch) and just-released new album The Big To-Do, currently streaming at Spinner – who also have an interview. They’re at Lee’s Palace on April 6 and 7 and were, curiously, the pre-show music over the PA at the Joanna Newsom show. Maybe they were late taking the stage because she was playing air guitar to Southern Rock Opera.

Stream: Drive-By Truckers / The Big To-Do

New York drone merchants Cold Cave have a date at Wrongbar on June 19.

MP3: Cold Cave – “Theme From Tomorrowland”
MP3: Cold Cave – “Laurels Of Erotomania”
MP3: Cold Cave – “Life Magazine”
Video: Cold Cave – “Life Magazine”

Pitchfork has a feature interview with Matt Ward and Zooey Deschanel of She & Him, whose new album Volume Two is streaming in its entirety over at NPR, a week before its March 23 release. They play The Phoenix on June 9.

Stream: She & Him / Volume Two

Wye Oak will be releasing a new EP entitled My Neighbor / My Creator on June 8, and are sharing a first MP3 from said release. They’re hitting the road with Shearwater this Spring and will be at Lee’s Palace with them on April 1.

MP3: Wye Oak – “I Hope You Die”

Billboard talks to Spoon drummer Jim Eno. They play The Sound Academy on March 29.

4AD has details of what’s sure to be one of the coolest Record Store Day specials this year – a live concert DVD from The Mountain Goats wherein John Darnielle performs The Life Of The World To Come in its entirety.

NPR has a World Cafe session with Ted Leo.

Magnet kicks off a week of handing the editorial reins to Miles Kurosky, whose solo debut The Desert Of Shallow Effects is out now.

Check out the new video from Retribution Gospel Choir.

Video: Retribution Gospel Choir – “Workin’ Hard”

NPR has a Tiny Desk Concert with The Antlers. They’re opening up for The National at Massey Hall on June 8 and 9.

And speaking of The National, Pitchfork has details on their new one High Violet, due out May 11 including cover art and tracklisting.

New Hot Chip video! They’re at the Kool Haus on April 20.

Video: Hot Chip – “I Feel Better”

The Quietus talks to Bernard Sumner of Bad Lieutenant.

Spinner talks to Swedish duo First Aid Kit. They’re at the Rivoli on June 12.

Serena-Maneesh, whose new record S-M 2: Abyss In B Minor comes out March 23, talk to Spinner. They play the Great Hall on April 2.

Exclaim talks to John K Samson of The Weakerthans, whose Live At The Burton Cummings Theatre is out next week and streaming right now at Exclaim. They play an in-store at Sonic Boom on March 25 and a proper show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on May 26.

Stream: The Weakerthans / Live At The Burton Cummings Theatre

The Toronto date for Lilith Fair has been announced – it’s happening July 24 at the Molson Amphitheatre. I had been saying that if we got the right combination of acts from the pool of talent already announced to be participating, it could be good. Well so far, we have not.

And y’all will excuse me as I immerse myself in South By South Nonsense for the next few days – trip down was completely uneventful, which was all I hoped for, and though it’s a touch cooler here in ATX than I’d like (or have packed for), it’s gonna be a good time.

By : Frank Yang at 9:55 am
Category: Concert Reviews

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RSS Feed for this post2 Responses.
  1. stalevar says:

    that moment with Joanna Newsom forgetting the words was so sweet! she was cheered up by everyone

  2. Chuck says:

    One of the best shows I’ve seen in years…..possibly because I have this sick fascination with the harp and how amazing it is and how much I would kill to learn how to play….but seriously, it was so good.