In recorded form, Joanna Newsom’s shtick can undoubtedly be an acquired taste. Even before this year’s complex and triumphant Have One On Me, Newsom’s childlike vocal inflections, lengthy compositions, and avant-garde take on indie pop structures have dissuaded about as many as they’ve dazzled—and I can’t blame them. (It took me almost a year of listening to her 2006 breakthrough, Ys, to truly “get it.”) Still, in the live setting, it’s almost impossible not to fall into Newsom’s enchanted musical kingdom. And Friday’s sold-out show at the Lobero was certainly no exception.
Opening up the show was stand-alone indie dynamo Robin Pecknold, who provided the perfect combination of humility and intensity to the evening’s program. In between sips of tea and a number of acoustic guitar swaps, the Fleet Foxes frontman led his audience through an understated cover of “The Lonesome Road,” and a smattering of acoustic musings off the Foxes’ yet-to-be-released sophomore LP. Even with his songs stripped of their full orchestration and epic five-part harmonies, Pecknold was still able to shine as both a songwriter and a powerful vocal presence in his own right, setting the ideal stage for what was to come.
Taking to the stage solo, Newsom delivered “’81” from behind her looming concert harp and immediately garnered the attention of everyone in the theater. Stripped of its auxiliary parts, the somber composition gave Newsom the ideal platform from which to flex her adept fingers and unusual, breathy, fluctuating vocal parts. Later, accompanied by Have One On Me composer Ryan Francesconi, drummer Neal Morgan, violinists/singers Mirabai Peart and Emily Packard, and trombonist Andrew Strain, Newsom jumped to the piano for the jazzy, parlor-style “Easy,” then back to the harp for “Go Long.” In between it all, Newsom’s band was the definition of restraint, coloring each of her songs with brief, often hushed, yet oddly pointed instrumental flourishes: a few notes on the recorder, a quiet series of taps against the floor tom’s frame, a single cry from the trombone. Among the night’s highlights, Newsom delivered a (relatively) short, jaunty mid-set reprieve with “Inflammatory Writ,” and annihilated the angsty piano-pounder “Soft as Chalk,” which built to a room-shaking flashpoint of drums, keys, and makeshift percussion.
In between each of these 6- to 12-minute opuses, Newsom was the picture of casual grace, smiling big, joking with her bandmates, and “please”-ing and “thank you”-ing her way through the set with a sweet, sprightly quality. In the end, it was this combination of genuineness and musical profligacy that ultimately made Friday’s performance what it was, and no doubt lured a new set of wary listeners into Newsom’s corner.