Storytelling has always been at the core of all folk music. A talented lyricist in tandem with the right instrumentals has the ability to transport you to another time, place or world. Singer, songwriter, harpist and pianist Joanna Newsom did just that with her skilled band. While touring her successful 2015 album Divers, they gave two hours of next-level, avant-garde, indie-folk story time at The Orpheum.
Alela Diane opened with guitarist Ryan Francesconi, who would later appear in Newsom’s band. Her voice had a vocal power and presence that still managed a gentle elegance, somewhat reminiscent of a modern Joni Mitchell. It was the perfect balance with which she could weave narratives and melodies that command attention, but never prove excessive or lacking beautiful simplicity.
Then Joanna Newsom took the stage, and as a long-time fan, I was a little nervous. The grand presence and complexity of her music has the ability to engulf your attention, and I wondered about her ability to do that in a live setting. She did not disappoint, not even a little. The minute she opened with “Bridges and Balloons” off her 2004 album "The Milk-Eyed Mender," she began to construct an experience like none other.
The success of the entire performance can, in part, be attributed to the well-oiled machine of sheer talent gracing the stage. She played with her brother, Pete Newsom on keys and drums, violinist and multi-instrumentalist Mirabai Peart and guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi. They created euphoria for the audience against a beautiful photographic backdrop depicting a foggy, fantastical outdoor scene lit by ethereal blue and purple lights. The band was precise and in sync the entire show, despite having to share one small space heater on the chilly stage. At one point, Joanna joked that we are all “a hearty people” for living in the climate that we do.
Her performance was an excellent reflection of her work as a whole. Her music is not the most approachable, especially for the folk genre. It is lyrically dense and musically convoluted, but that’s what makes the experience of listening to it so beautiful and unique. It is poetry set to complexity. In order to be rewarded by her lyrics and traveling harp instrumentals, you as a listener need to open yourself completely and allow yourself to be absorbed in the art she makes, often over and over again. In return, Newsom does the same. Paired with her raw and impeccable musical talent, her ability to take risks and be honest and vulnerable in them is a driving force for her work. There’s a starry-eyed sincerity and quiet confidence to everything she does, and her performance was no exception, making this performance one of the most rewarding shows I’ve ever experienced.
The climax of the show was a dynamic performance of “Leaving the City.” The song contained the musical equivalent of both a whisper and a scream; Newsom and her band played at their tenderest and somehow managed to transition flawlessly into a musical explosion several times within the same song. She followed this song by performing a new take on an old favorite “Peach, Plum, Pear,” with a bass-heavy rendition ending in a complex, syncopated harp solo.
After finishing a jaw-dropping performance of “Time, As a Symptom” and exiting the stage, the entire audience was on their feet begging for more. She came back for an encore, performing “Sawdust & Diamonds” and “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie.” The encore was a beautiful, but cruel decision, considering I was still crying when house lights came on. Her honest and risky vulnerability is exactly what allows her to get away with lyrics like “your skin is something that I stir into my tea” and still turn the entire audience into a puddle.