One for the Ages

My absurdly long profile and cover story on Joanna Newsome and her new record Ys is coming out this week in Arthur magazine. The hard copies should be hitting the street anyday now, but you can also download the article at the Arthur website, and I will eventually post it here in the archive. Id try to get the magazine if I were you. Not only will you strike a blow for the tangible world against the vaporous empire of bitsa key theme of the piecebut you will also get to enjoy the nifty retro cover art in all its glory, not to mention saving your eyes from squinting.

Like a true fanboy, I flew down to LA last night to catch Joanna Newsom in concert, as Ill be gone from San Francisco when she performs at the Great American. The sold-out show took place at the refurbished El Rey, its serpentine neon twisting crazily along Miracle Mile. Not as many beards or fringed jackets or wild eyes in the crowd as I had expected; many of the boys in the audience were positively fratish. On stage things were different. The heavily bearded and bull-frog-eyed Noah Georgeson, Newsoms erstwhile producer and former beau, opened the show with an excellent set of dense, strangely timeless songs, properly finger-picked on a classical guitar and supported by a long-haired blond guy playing perfectly spare percussion. Georgeson managed to be casual and deeply considered at once. One of the highpoints, symbolic as well as musical, was his cover of Nature Boy, originally brought to Nat King Cole by one of the original hippies, Eden Ahbez, an LA nomad and raw foodie from the 1940s. Bill Callahan played next, and while I appreciate the spare strumming and the plaintive baritone, the songs largely left me flat.

Newsom’s set was, like her record, for the ages. Wearing a pre-Raphaelite red dress, her elf ears poking through her lank hair, Newsom was buoyant and driven in her performance, and played her often insanely tough material with command and inventiveness. Watching Newsoms hands weave patterns on the harp was like watching a dancer rage with precision. She began and ended her appearance alone onstage, playing the best songs on The Milk-Eyed Mender, which warmed the cockles of many hearts on this unusually chilly eve. She also played a Scottish ballad I first heard on a Shirley Collins album; like so many songs on Ys, it features cold clay.

But the heart of the evening was the performance, in order and in its entirety, of her amazing song-cycle Ys. In the place of the Van Dyke Parks string arrangements that so twist and complement the songs on the album, Newsom brought in a band, some of whom are old friends of hers from the Lark in the Morning music gathering she attends religiously in northern California: Ryan Francesconi played a mean bouzouki as well as guitar, Kevin Barker held it down on banjo and more guitar, and Dan Cantrell glued it all together with accordion and, delightfully, the saw, which he made sound more like a theremin than most theremin players do. Drummer Neal Morgan and Kate Hardin also sang, and Bill Callahan, thankfully, did not come onstage to sing his part in Only Skin. Morgan was doing more than an able job.

The ensembles music reproduced the playful density of Parks arrangements, but also took off in ways appropriate to an ace group of folk musicians playing a music that is folk in spirit while being strikingly original. Rhythms in particular were punched up, pulled apart, and thickened, and the anger and frustration that lurks in these songs rose to the surface more nakedly than you hear on the album. Monkey & Bear was thoroughly transformed, the end of the song achieving a drive far more convulsive than on the LP, wringing a new and appropriate depth out of this tale of broken boundaries and climatic release. As if to make up for its relative shortness, the close of Cosmia, an elegy for Newsoms childhood best friend, was drawn out deliciously, giving room to the musicians to come out from behind the arrangements. Newsom repeated the songs final figure ever more quietly, until it became inaudible, at which point she drew her finger up a single harp string, conjuring the subtlest of overtones while also, in my mind anyway, tracing the imagined trajectory of her friends soul, and ours perhaps, as it ascends towards true light.