Monday, February 01, 2010

Joanna Newson @ Christchurch Repertory Theatre

The lady, she is a genius. First there’s the harp, an instrument I understand to be a little more complex than most to play, and she has the most intricate of arrangements to many of her songs (a review on Pitchfork says it well: "Newsom's fingers flitting about the massive instrument looked like the rapid untangling of something hopelessly knotted"). I'd thought she'd carry her harp with her, but she confessed she'd seen the harp she was playing for the first time earlier in the day - that can't have made her job any easier. Then the songs themselves: long, intense, wordy. And this is Joanna Newsom we’re talking about: her voice adds an extra layer of complexity, as it has such a wide range, one she seems to have expanded, not so much use of the upper registers. Here she is, playing the Sprout and the Bean. Isn't she just lovely?

While some people seem to have difficulty just walking in a straight line, Joanna Newsom sings her complex songs while both playing the harp and managing her voice at the same time. I don't know how she keeps it all together, because her songs are long. At the end of each, she smiles beautifically at the audience, as if a little surprised we're there. Perhaps she does forget we are there: I don’t think I’ve heard a quieter audience, and there were a lot of us, too many for the Harbourlight in Lyttleton so the show was moved to a place that would hold 400. I’d had my doubts about my fellow audience members: they muttered their way through the Renderer’s set and were only a little bit quieter for Jens Lekman.

Most of the songs were brand new, off the album which is yet to be released. I’ve not listened to any of her music for more than a year anyway, so it was as if I was hearing each song for the first time. That’s a bit of a problem when it comes to Joanna Newsom because I have problems keeping up. Ideally, she’d do one of her songs maybe five times, then ask us to come back then next night for another. But no, she sang new songs without a break for an hour and a half and then came back with a single song for the encore. Ah well, her new CD has been announced (it is actually 3 CD's!, called Have One On Me, made largely in Japan last year) and I have already placed my order, direct with Dragcity. I might even manage to get my stereo properly set up in her honour.

Apparently she has put together quite an ensemble for the CD: she pared it down to four musicians for the Australian leg of the tour but sent two of them packing before coming to New Zealand. One fellow was on drums: I was impressed that he was nattily dressed in a college professor sort of way, corduroy suit and tie, yet had bare feet. The other fellow played an assortment of stringed instruments and a flute. They were for the most part a great addition: there was just one point, during the second song (Daddy Long Legs): Joanna was singing very fast, so it was already hard to work out exactly what she was singing, and the drums became so loud and frenetic it was completely impossible.

I found myself wondering what it would be like to talk with her: applying her wordsmith skills and romantic sensibility to a conversation could be quite mind-blowing. She didn't have a whole lot to say while on stage and although I have seen her in real life, as it were, she was just ordering food in a cafe. Again Pitchfork comes to the rescue: when interviewed, her answers are "as extensive and eloquent as the lyrics" in her music.

At her gigs, she comes across as quite the folkie - she was wearing a dress that wouldn't have looked out of place on a hippie, so I've been a little surprised to read that she has an alternate career as a model, doing a magazine cover for Armani, for example. This photo doesn't look anything like her!

I’m not sure why, but it seems they deferred opening the doors for quite some time and yet didn’t stop the Renderers from starting. I came in with the rest of the queue and they seemed to be half way through the setlist. As seems to be the case with them, the larger the venue, the more subdued the mood – I saw them at Sammy’s once and it was awful. They are in their element playing loud in a small venue, like Chicks. Here, I think they’d toned things down anyway: MaryRose mentioned a couple of times that the song was best when played loud. So, they were OK but I’ve seen them much better.

I don’t know about Jens Lekman: the audience lapped him up and wanted an encore, but I was obscurely irritated by his whole performance, and can’t even put my finger on the reason. It had something to do with a sense that the whole thing was manufactured and a bit poppish.