Joanna Newsom, Liverpool Philharmonic, gig review: Keeping the audience transfixed throughout the evening

Joanna Newsom has succeeded in becoming as challenging and unpredictable as she is exact and consistent

Daniel Dylan Wray
Wednesday 02 March 2016 12:44
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Joanna Newsom
Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom has such command of her instrument that she has a vortex-like pull on her audience when attached to it. From the second she places her hand on the harp and the delicate string flutters float through the room – via 2004’s “Bridges and Balloons” – she has the room transfixed, betrothed and absorbed and it’s a state they remain in throughout the evening.

Material from her recent Divers album shimmers, skips and glides, notably “Anecdotes” and the title track, although the full force and breadth of her accompanying band don’t really kick in until a rousing “Monkey and Bear” which sees Newsom’s voice peak, weaving from an alarming jolt to a hushed yelp and a wonky whisper. It erupts in quiet explosions, the song swelling and resting, growing and shrinking; almost acting like respiratory function in its carriage. Despite its rhythmic and structural complexities it is, on a base level, also goose-bump inducing.

Despite her recent explorations in brevity on Divers, Newsom is an artist that seems to flourish when she has a track as unwinding, occupied and elongated as the otherworldly narratives she so seamlessly spins. “Have One on Me” being one such example and acting as the unravelling and presentation of a world as much as simply the release of a song. The deft instrumentation feels complex and multifaceted yet never convoluted or superfluous – it’s a gripping display of a song that unfurls and constantly moves, like driving over and under mountain hill roads, but always one that displays staunch restraint and tact too.

The closing “Good Intentions Paving Company” positively bounces in its projection, Newsom’s piano lines jumping and wriggling in askew rhythms as her voice rises. It’s such tracks as these, in which the band seem to almost pass an invisible baton between them, that the evening feels most alive. The delicate interplay between dual violins leaving space for rumbling drums, light keys and the ever-changing textural switch between guitar, banjo and what appears (from way up on the balcony) to be a bouzouki.

The encore is a closing pairing of “Cosmia” and “Baby Birch”, the former’s hypnotic harp loop the basis for the building of a track that looks set to expand and hints at the superb Eastern-flavoured version found on the Ys St Band EP but instead it ends rather concisely, almost teasingly. The final track is another moment that belongs to the whole band; given Newsom’s powerful, inimitable presence she is a generous collaborator and knows when to give herself enough space on stage. As the whole band coalesce around Newsom’s soft harp pickings and measured vocals, the song builds in opaque layers, heavy waves of guitar ripple as drums clatter in little bursts of fills and the strings tinkle and weave. It’s a masterful execution in construct and one that never feels like it’s reaching for an easy, explosive, pay-off. Instead it quietly drifts and soothes towards its close and the song feels like it simply disappears rather than finishes. It’s an emblematic ending of an artist that has succeeded in becoming as challenging and unpredictable as she is exact and consistent.

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