Joanna Newsom, Royal Festival Hall, London

A girl, a 'persnickety' harp and a God-given gift to challenge Gaga

When Voltaire said it of God, there was something about the line "if [he] didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him" that inspired a debate that continues to this day.

Which makes it all the sadder that his words have now been paraphrased to within an inch of their life by anyone looking for a lazy cliché. Worse, it's a cliché generally used to describe people we have neither the language nor the imagination to invent.

The thought springs to mind after Joanna Newsom's exquisite concert in London on Tuesday night. Who would have thought that there was a gap in the market for a singer-songwriter who writes poem-songs that stretch to the 10-minute mark and beyond, who knew she wanted to play the harp before she was old enough to hold one, and who is as inspired by Renaissance music as she is by Appalachian folk, west African rhythms and ragtime jazz?

So if there are the markings of the mythological around this 28-year-old Californian, it should come as no surprise that she slinks on to the stage in a pearlescent gown with a sea-shell belt looking like a cross between a mermaid and an abandoned bride. She opens, just the harp for accompaniment, with "'81", from her recent triple album Have One on Me. In its unusually short running time of under five minutes, Newsom sings of tilling the Garden of Eden, St George and the dragon, the secession from the union and lying by a spring "as naked as a trout". It is in many ways a typical piece. It is greeted by reverent hush and then euphoric applause.

Newsom is then joined by her band – a drummer/percussionist, a guitarist as adept with a Bulgarian tambura as he is with an array of reed and wind instruments, two violinists and a trombonist. The set draws heavily from Have One on Me and, as Newsom shifts to the grand piano, she warns the audience that when she goes back to the harp, it will require some tuning and that void will be filled by an audience Q&A session presided over by percussionist and arranger Neil Morgan. Cue one of the strangest and, in Morgan's words, "most psychedelic" interludes this hall will ever witness.

Questions range from "Why don't you like cheese?" (answer: "You must have been at the last show; I have nothing against cheese") to "If I give you a CD of my music, will you listen to it?" (answer: "Yes") to "Will you marry me?" (answer: "No") to "What do you think about the pedestrianisation of Norwich city centre?" (no answer).

When Newsom is done tuning, she declares, as only she would, the harp a "persnickety" instrument, before casting her spell once more over the 3,000 or so present. And while the odd song collapses under the weight of its ideas, for the most part symphonies swirl, motifs that others would build a career out of drop in and out and no one can be left in any doubt that they are witnessing a master at work.

A version of old favourite "The Book of Right-on" is so mesmerising that even the guy sitting next to me, who has given the odd shuffle in his seat and has clearly been dragged along by his female companion, turns at the end of the song to ask me its title. Newsom's main instrument, her voice, can still polarise opinion, but it should be noted that since an operation on a vocal-cord nodule last year it has become a far sweeter instrument – as likely to invoke Joni Mitchell as it is Björk.

In a recent interview, Newsom expressed her disappointment at the way the public has embraced Lady Gaga, saying, "There's not much in her music to distinguish it from other glossy, formulaic pop. She just happens to wear weirder outfits than Britney Spears." It's a telling and perceptive comment. Because for all the female artists battling to be crowned the new "Queen of Pop", Newsom, for all her inherent quirkiness, is probably the one making the records that will best stand the test of time and most challenge our lazy perceptions of what "pop" music is and can be.

From kooky curio to concert hall in six years. Joanna Newsom. If she didn't exist, we could never invent her.

Joanna Newsom headlines the Green Man Festival on 22 Aug, www.greenman.net

Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes