Joanna Newsom must be one of a few select musicians operating in the milieu of modern music that uses an instrument other than a guitar or keyboard. It’s been two years since the enigmatic Newsom played her harp for the good people of Manchester; that was a wonderful date at the Bridgewater Hall, but now she’s finally returned to grace the faded glamour of the Palace Theatre
It would be an understatement to say that I wasn’t excited to see that the legendary Roy Harper was the support act. His short set was littered with funny anecdotes and observations, especially regarding the recent visit by the Pope visit –wearing a condom is now a revolutionary act - but it didn’t distract from the music. He’s still in fine voice after all these years and can still knock out a mean tune on the guitar. I'd secretly hoped he’d play ‘When an old cricketer…’ which is my all time favorite song of his, but unfortunately he didn’t. However he did perform ‘The Green Man’ and a lovely version of ‘Me and My Woman’ which was more than adequate compensation. When the rugged Harper eventually leaves, most probably to have a celebratory cigar, there’s twenty minutes or so of activity to make the stage fit for a beautiful harpist.
For me, there’s still something magical in the moment the lights of a theatre dim to herald the arrival of the artist. And it’s no less true tonight when the half-light welcomes Joanna Newsome as she glides onto the stage in a flowing black gown, and places herself gracefully by her harp. Initially she appears dwarfed by this gigantic instrument but as her fingers start to weave the notes of opening song Bridges and Balloons together and the lyrics spill from her ruby red lips, she grows in stature to become its equal.
The majority of tonight’s the set is drawn from Joanna’s latest CD, the epic ‘Have One On Me’ and she moves smoothly into the spidery title track with consummate ease. Newsom has gathered around her a fine collection of five musicians to help her ornament the passages of this extraordinary lovely music, and it’s amazing how easily this ensemble slip effortlessly through the intricate rhythms of each song. Although Newsom orchestrates the music from the harp or piano, there are moments when the entire band gel and the music becomes emotionally overpowering.
A heart stopping and jaw dropping version of In California is possibly the jewel in tonight’s set, although the funky “Good Intentions Paving Company” with its piano romp and dizzy trombone shines almost as brightly. Crowd favourite "Peach, Plum, Pear" brings the all too short a set to a conclusion with some delicate interplay between the harp and guitar. She returns to serenade the crowd goodnight with beautiful and intensely atmospheric solo rendition of ‘Jackrabbits’ Then, she’s finally gone, though hopefully this time, not for as long.
Review/photos by Phil King