Live Review

Joanna Newsom, Calvin College Chapel, Grand Rapids

No matter the seriousness of her material she makes the crowd feel at ease.

Joanna Newsom

has pipes, which, if you are a fan, you should be well aware of. Recordings often fool listeners into docility, creating a kind of lie, one that showcases the artist’s perfections, promising a nearly identical live set. Many artists do not live up to this promise, they fail in the worse ways; sounding sloppy and unpracticed, drunken and rambling, or they are so incredibly produced that live they cannot rise up to the perfection created via studio with sound boards and electronic magic tricks. Newsom’s vocal capability requires no extra layers or Logic like adjustments. They are pure and lovely. The nasal quality of her voice that can be cumbersome, at times on her recordings are refreshing, light, powerful.

Newsom is an impressive musician alone, both in her singing and harp playing. Her talent is vibrant and draws and equally vibrant supporting cast. Newsom and friends create live as well as recorded music that feel like identical twins, and not stale in the way identical things can be, but that type of unified, yet diverse warmth human personalities have. Their songs build and break, swing and whither with precision and at will. Little guitar lines pop and burst, while violin lines build and then fade away seconds later. The drummer, who must be classically trained, is a stand out. His arrangements are airy and minimal, a drumming that leads and commands, while easily sneaking below a song, unnoticeable.

With what seems a practiced nod of the head, Newsom sings her lyrics knowingly. It is as if he she guides listeners through her enormously composed songs, singing from the side of her mouth, journeying through her dense, complex-lyrical stories. Even when she isn’t singing at all she still moves her head, braid bobbing and whipping around her neck and shoulders. Much like the coiling nerves of our brains, she is electric; a bundle of energy.

Her music is contradictory. It elicits emotions both of sadness and bubbling mirth. One feels the need for standing ovation and slumped weeping. And, because it is so sprawling, her songs can lead to somber speculation and introspection. These feelings are evidenced in twelve minute ‘Emily’, slowly building, relying heavily on Newsom’s take on the downtrodden. One would find it easy to disappear in her songs, but between each, whether short or long, weary or strong, she jokes with the crowd, thanking them for being excited or even crass – brazenly noting her good looks. No matter the seriousness of her material she makes the crowd feel at ease, because her conversation, her appreciations feel heartfelt, unlike the lesser musicians who blather a kind of obligatory burble from their mouths, completely unconcerned with how they may be received.

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