Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom

As the stage lights eventually dim and the small panelled door at side of stage opens a crack to reveal Joanna Newsom and her band for the evening, Hamer Hall’s audience erupt in applause. Tonight the place is fairly brimming with her most fervent fans – all assembled for what is to be the very first Aussie show on her world-wide ’Divers’ Tour.

Known to be a fiercely shy and private woman, who shuns social media and signing sessions at every turn, Joanna walks onstage almost a tad sheepishly, with a shrug of the shoulders that signals she still doesn’t quite know what all the fuss is about. With her ever-present radiant smile, she looks stunning in an exquisite long flowing red sundress. Pausing momentarily beside her trusty harp, which incidentally dwarfs her diminutive frame, she takes a second to drink in the audience’s welcoming applause – gauging the vibe of the evening – and if this audience is any early indication, expectations are running moderately high tonight.

Steadfast fans will tell you this is Newsom’s fifth visit to the lucky country but it’s only my first time seeing her live. What I have heard I’ve really liked – stylistically her creations are difficult to pigeonhole but her voice immediately reminded me of a young Kate Bush, with accents of Björk and her songwriting style echoed Joni Mitchell’s storytelling ethos. I am very interested to see how she comes across live.

Joanna Newsom

As her band encamp around her, she settles herself centre stage and pulls her massive pedal harp comfortably onto her shoulder. Opting to begin proceedings soft and subtlely tonight, she opens her glory box and pulls out her first little treasure… it’s ‘Bridges and Balloons’ – the opening track from her 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender. Coupled with her affected, almost waifish vocal, it’s lyrics immediately evoke an intoxicating sense of childlike adventure and imagination. It’s clear she revels in the beauty of language: the song is dripping with vivid wordplay, references to ‘Narnia’, and recollections of ‘setting sail’ in a ‘little wicker beetle shell’.

Newsom takes her place at the Steinway piano for the second song, which is ‘Anecdotes’ from 2015’s Divers album. And what a song it is. I love it instantly. This time the lyric is strewn with war-centric references: talk of trenches, land mines and Private Poorwill... On an emotional level it reminds me enormously of Kate Bush’s 'Oh England, My Lionheart'.

As I listen intently to the lyrics, my gaze lifts a few inches above her head and I become aware of the dense deeply painted backdrop behind the band – a richly impressionistic oil painting of luxuriant clouds caressing mystic peaks and realise it’s the perfect visual metaphor for the music we’re hearing tonight.

Joanna Newsom

The songs are all dreamlike recollections – pure fantasy – of other times, other places that only exist in the deepest recesses of our collective imaginations. Just for one night Joanna walks their winding corridors, illuminating this room, awakening that emotion, dusting down long forgotten memories and reacquainting us with old friends and lovers.

Divers’ titular track is next, and it’s an anguishing sorrowful heartbreaker.

“A woman is alive, a woman is alive
You do not take her for a siren
An anchor on a stone, alone, unfaceted and fine
And never will I wed
I’ll hunt the pearl of death to the bottom of my life
And ever hold my breath
‘til I may be the diver’s wife.”

We are only three songs in and I’m impressed.

‘Monkey and Bear’ with it’s very ‘Van Dyke’-ish arrangement follows and then it’s ‘Goose Eggs’ which Newsom plays on a nearby synth. She slides her tiny frame up and down the length of her seat to reach various parts of the synths extended keyboard. It’s a upbeat little ditty about a strained relationship and certainly after the harp and the Steinway, it sounds contemporary, new and vital.

‘In California’ is quite different again, a wistful yearning ode – she sings sadly at the prospect of having to “spend my life in spitting distance of the love that I have known”.

This leads us happily into the first single off Divers: 'Sapokanikan' – a track that shows its playful nature from the outset, for within the first 15 seconds she’s somehow managed to work ‘Ozymandian’ into a rhyming couplet with ‘Sapokanikan’. How in heck does anyone manage that without sounding pretentious? It matters not. It’s a rollicking tune – there is joyous flute, meaty drums and it has a super-friendly vibe to it.

Joanna Newsom

Another track from Divers follows: ‘Leaving The City’ which is simply breathtaking. All the nuances of songwriting greatness are there. Deftly sparing touches of other instruments simply as washes of tone and colour that accent her already fabulous harp melodies. Not a head in the audience is moving – everyone is transfixed.

Joanna takes us back six years now to 2010 for the title track of ‘Have One On Me’. It’s an epic composition with many tempo, mood and stylistic changes. Her band have to watch her like hawks for their individual cues. For just a moment a wayward stage light catches Joanna’s upper arms as she weaves her magic across the harp strings and I notice just how toned they are – the inevitable by-product of playing this instrument solidly for nearly thirty years – she picked it up at age five.

We’re on the home stretch now and it’s time for ‘Peach Plum Pear,’ an old personal favourite. It’s a song about a chance meeting with great potential that is sadly never realised…

“We speak in the store
I’m a sensitive bore
You seem markedly more
And I’m oozing surprise

But it’s late in the day
And you’re well on your way
What was golden went gray
And I’m suddenly shy”

She chooses to follow that up with her sci-fi story about time travel and lost love: ‘Waltz of the 101st Lightborne’. Back at the Steinway again, I notice that during the song she occasionally bounces her tiny frame slightly on the piano stool. At first I think it's just her getting into the piece but then I realise it serves a twofold purpose... it's also her way of getting a clear visual on the rest of her band. As she makes eye contact with her brother on drums and signals her approval to him with a smiling nod, there is no question that Joanna is always in full control of the Good Ship Newsom.

She returns to the harp for the second last song of the main set. Requiring mammoth concentration because of all of the timing changes, it’s the epically complex and challenging ‘Cosmia’ – a song about a certain genus of moths, long believed to bring relief from grief. Joanna takes a massively deep breath before diving in. She needn't have been concerned... it's a flawless performance and as she relaxes back on her stool with a clear sense of relief on her face, once again members of the audience jump to their feet exultantly granting her another standing ovation.

“Beneath the porch-light
We’ve all been circling
Beat our dust hearts
Singe our flour wings
But in the corner
Something is happening!
Wild Cosmia, what have you seen?

Water were your limbs
And the fire was your hair
And then the moonlight caught your eye
And you rose through the air
Well, if you’ve seen true light
Then this is my prayer:
Will you call me, when you get there?”

Source: Live at The Woods Stage, End Of The Road Festival, UK - 04.09.11

Last song of the main set proper now. It's 'Time, As A Symptom' and is exquisite.

She and the band walk off swiftly before rewarding our enthusiastic applause with a superb encore rendition of ‘Baby Birch’. The song is replete with a veritable cornucopia of instruments and live is an absolute revelation. Newsom’s harp becomes the epicentre of our tiny aural universe – with all the other instruments flying into and out of this kaleidoscope of sound.

As the song climaxes, it’s another standing ovation. Melbourne has clearly spoken and Joanna seems truly appreciative at how well the show has been received as she waves goodnight and triumphantly leaves the stage.

On vinyl and cd, it’s fair to say that Joanna Newsom’s idiosyncratic muse is an ear-opening proposition but live, she is brilliantly mind-blowing. If you get the opportunity to see this modest but immensely original and talented artist on her ‘Divers’ World Tour – please – grab it with both hands and 'have one on her'! You will be justly rewarded.

Joanna Newsom

Bridges and Balloons
Monkey & Bear
Goose Eggs
In California
Leaving The City
Have One On Me
Peach, Plum, Pear
Waltz Of The 101st Lightborne
Time, As a Symptom

Baby Birch

Joanna Newsom Performs "Leaving The City"
Source: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (December 9, 2015)

The following link on youtube showcases nearly a full show with exactly the same setlist. The video is in two parts. Highly recommended.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Our complete photo gallery of Joanna Newson is available here:
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