Joanna Newsom. Boulder Theater. 04.03.16
Growing up in a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains was a pleasurable experience, but the lack of culture drove me away at the first opportunity. Like many others before me, I wanted to experience life outside of Auburn, California. San Diego became my launching pad. From there I traveled the United States and then the world, before meeting my wife while living in San Francisco. Now we reside in Colorado (once again at the base of a beautiful mountain range) and I’m two decades removed from my hometown. It’s only from this current perspective that I can really appreciate the area I grew up in. There was a magical place about twenty miles north of us called Nevada City. It was a short car drive away, but it seemed like another world. Even at a young age, I knew there was something different about the residents of that town. Contradictory to the conservative, working-class people at home, Nevada City was full of liberal, artsy types — some of whom were named Utah Phillips, Gary Snyder, and Roger Hodgson.
Nevada City was also regionally famous for their renaissance fairs, arts & crafts, street musicians, distinct aromas consisting of homegrown marijuana fused with patchouli oil, and Victorian Christmas festivities. Little kids would chase horse-drawn carriages down Broad Street in late December, spilling hot chocolate and cider all over their winter coats, while costumed carolers set voice to the chilly mountain air. It makes sense that one of those little kids (the girl who had just started harp lessons after learning to play piano) would grow up to become Joanna Newsom, doesn’t it? The scene was just waiting for someone like her. But like so many others before, Joanna wanted to experience life outside her hometown as well. Oakland became her launching pad. From there she went on to do many exciting things (most of which are beyond the scope of this article), but no matter how far removed she became from Nevada City, she always managed to maintain (and build on) the magic that existed there. This long-winded introduction is just an explanation as to why there was something so familiar about the way Joanna cast a spell on the capacity crowd at the Boulder Theater last night.
A foggy mountain mural painted the scene perfectly as Joanna joined her merry band of musicians on stage after an acoustic set from Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold. Wearing a smile bigger than her face itself, she gazed out at the crowd with childlike wonder, before cradling her harp for “Bridges and Balloons” from her debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender. The opening lines, “we sailed away on a winter’s day, with fate as malleable as clay,” could be mistaken for another simple song about leaving home, but just like every song she’s released since then, it veers off into uncharted territory. “Brace and buoy the living-room, a loom of metal, warp woof wimble.” I still remember shaking my head the first time I heard that song. Like many of her staunchest critics, I couldn’t get past the whimsical, almost comical vocals. Sounding like a prepubescent girl, as well as a cranky old woman, every word was jarring to the senses. It wasn’t until she opened for Björk in 2007 that I was able to really understand (and appreciate) her unique talent as a vocalist. After seeing her perform live at that show, I found her voice and persona completely enthralling.
There is something about being in Joanna’s presence, while her fingers soar across the strings of her masterfully carved harp, that cannot be experienced by listening to her albums. When she surrounds herself with a quintet of amazing multi-instrumentalists, who all make sounds using voice, violin, guitar, banjo, drums, viola, keyboard, and various non-traditional items, it becomes an unbelievably intricate display of teamwork and talent. And as if it wasn’t enough that she transitioned from harp to piano and back again (within in the same song), there wasn’t a single person on the stage who didn’t do exactly the same thing with the arsenal of sound-making devices at their disposal. There were times when I was so focused on the plucking of harp strings that, even from the third row, I didn’t notice the transition from violins to recorders until the sounds of birds rang through the theater. At other times, the sound would be less distinctive and I’d have to follow its origin to a metal tube being dragged across an electric guitar string, or a tambourine lightly striking a drum head. Everything was perfectly choreographed to bring Joanna’s original compositions alive on the stage. Speaking through eye contact, everyone was in perfect sync as the score encompassed each epic piece of poetry Joanna put to song.
If I didn’t know Joanna Newsom was from Nevada City, I would assume she stepped out the pages of a storybook. With so much lyrical content involving animals (and insects and other creatures), I wouldn’t have been surprised if cartoon birds were circling her ponytail throughout the performance. The Boulder audience, with their colorful dresses and feathers in their caps, helped facilitate that fiction. They were so perfect, they literally could have been planted. All pixie jokes aside, I know Joanna Newsom is a real life person. She is married to a famous actor, she’s done some modeling and acting herself, and just like every other real life person, she has to deal with real life problems. A couple of those problems broke through the fairy tale façade last night. Her tour bus broke down on the way to Boulder from Salt Lake City. Luckily for everybody involved, Justin Bieber’s bus happened to be driving by at the time. The Bieb was kind enough to lend some spare parts to Joanna’s crew, so everything seemed to be hunky dory. But then a buzzing sound started coming from Jonanna’s harp. We, as the audience, couldn’t hear it, but it really seemed to be getting on her nerves. That made her second-guess accepting help from someone like Justin Bieber, because now the ‘damsel in distress’ seemed to be cursed for accepting help from the evil…oh nevermind, I guess this story is just propagating the whole fairy tale thing.
The setlist was strong on Divers and Have One on Me material, with many selections acting as mini-suites unto themselves, but it was Ys’s “Monkey & Bear” that earned a standing ovation in the middle of the set. Requests were acknowledged with sweet words and a smile, but the band never veered from the agreed upon setlist…which was completely understandable considering the rehearsal time that must have gone into such a production. Joanna was told how beautiful she was (and she really was radiant under the bright white lights the entire evening) and she thanked the audience between every song. There was a mutual love thing going on, but when one person accused her of “say(ing) that to all the audiences,” a slight shrug and a sly “uhhhh…” wasn’t exactly a denial. “Peach Plum Pear” was another crowd favorite, although I don’t think I was alone when the percussion-heavy “Time, As a Symptom” gave me the little kick-start I needed at that point. The high energy continued with a dueling violin interlude during “Good Intentions Paving Co.”. As amazing as that closing track was, the audience wasn’t quite ready to let the fantasy end, so after a short intermission, the encore commenced with “Go Long” and “Baby Birch”, despite the plea for “Emily”.
Joanna Newsom is an incredibly talented harpist. She is also a genuine poet and expert songwriter. She plays the piano beautifully and she surrounds herself with musicians who breathe their own life into her compositions without overshadowing the vision she had for them. She bursts with life when she’s on a stage and she lets her goofy, quirky personality infect everyone in the vicinity. Those are just facts. Her voice is another story. I have come to love it, but I also completely understand those who don’t. I cannot objectively argue the merits of her vocal style, but I think that’s a good thing, because Joanna Newsom will always be Joanna Newsom. Compromise will never be a choice she has to make. She had no problem selling out the show in Boulder, Colorado (a town that hosts a Tulip Fairy & Elf Festival) and she has a sustainable following in cities all over the world, but she’ll never be headlining the Pepsi Center. Would we really want her to though? She is special to many people for many reasons and we all want to feel like we are special as well. Joanna Newsom has come a long way from that small town in Northern California, and as otherworldly as her music is, something about it still feels like home to me. And what could be more special than that?
Bridges and Balloons
Leaving the City
Have One on Me
Peach Plum Pear
Time, As A Symptom
Good Intentions Paving Co.