Joanna Newsom concluded her recent symphony tour in Atlanta, Ga at the almost unlikely Woodruff Arts Center. Her show was divided into two halves. The first half found her performing Ys entirely with orchestra in strict chronological order. The second half found her performing songs with her band and twice alone. The show was a perfectionist melding of the old, while shadowing at what her musical future holds.
Usually in symphonies there’s always one really neurotic member. This was not perceivable this night. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is one of the most diverse and interesting orchestras in North America with members from their late twenties to what looked like to be their seventies. All orchestra members were decked out in blinding white suits which were amplified gratuitous by the performing stage lights infinite onslaught.
The Woodruff Arts Center functioned as the perfect setting for her last album. The audience was mostly on good behavior except in the middle of the first half as a couple next to me tried to smother their rebellious cell phone as if it was an unwanted child. Also, the music at intermission was terribly horrific! Who picks this stuff?
Ys seemed to come alive almost supernaturally and was metaphysically visceral. The songs live versions became immediately more soul-wrenching and eccentric. The symphony players played with intense focus and seemed curious as to where these arrangements were taking them. Robert Spano, the conductor, was in fine form while also heaping praise upon Newsom after each song.
Procuring greater sadness shadings then the studio version, “Emily” found Newsom vocalizing concentrated melancholy. Her vocals, especially on this song, reflected a new singing style. She revealed a mature control with louder range, mostly avoiding her ancient twee child whine. The training allows her vocals to fit more sharply her lyrical content nuances, which timelessly narrate life’s weathered rough peculiarities. Kate Bush qualities came out while also ole time country folk. Though obviously hyperbolic obtuse through anyone’s own investigation, Newsom’s vocals brought to mind the differences between Sara Carter (Carter Family) 1920s recordings compared to Sara Carter’s late 1930s recordings.
Quietly on fire, her backing band provided an emotional color wheel for her sprawling epics. The string man, decked out in a magical green suit, precisely played tamboura and banjo with a deceptively calm confidence hiding a secretive moodiness. He served as the show’s storm center between silent caustic nature of the back up singer/violinist and the clowning of the drummer.
The drummer was a different story. For the symphony set, he did not have the right drums (not necessarily his fault). Absurdly corralled and dwarfed by being stuck with a rock drum floor tom (no timpani orchestra drum?), his playing was often devoured by the symphony’s expanses). Unfortunately his drumming rhythmically misaligned on occasion, especially within the symphony set’s bookends. My girlfriend (who is not a musician) rhetorically asked “Is he tone deaf!?” He seemed to be working against songs and overemphasized emotional nuances. His body language, fidgety, created submerged comic relief among the seriousness. His drumming improved dramatically during the second set while his singing was finely wonderful during both sets.
Hard to understand unless experienced visually in person, harp playing demands physical feats of miraculous stamina. The instrument easily dwarfs the singer. Newsom seemed to internally struggle with its weight as leans upon her as she sings behind while plucking and pulling the strings.
For the second half, the band returned slightly drunk and letting loose after the intensity of playing with a full orchestra. The second show half also really let Newsom let down any pretensions between audience and performer. Unlike the last time I saw her live, Newsom radiated a weathered confidence cracking jokes with and about the drummer while her violinist jokingly (or unjokingly) stoically threatened her.
The second show half featured songs mixing EP material with Milk Eyed Mender material with some new arrangements. “Book of Right On,” was infectious as usual. “Peach, Plumb, Pear” interestingly changed the song’s chorus tense from “I am blue” to “I was blue.” Coleen, off her Ys Street band EP, was faithful to that studio version’s rough and tumble feel.
Newsom’s untitled new song definitely does not have a title as she bantered before hand. She pseudo complained of critics bestowing the composition a title. Performed solo, the song differs from her earlier repertoire as strange which bore similarities to the American folk standard “All My Trials” yet more lilting bearing similarities to her interests in Irish folk ballads.
Newsom said this was the first crowd on any tour that immediately stood up in ovation for an encore. “Sadie” was screamed and shouted as request by a lone overexcited audience member. At this point, the end of the last show of an intense tour, Newsom was exhausted.