The harpist, pianist and singer, who has crafted a body of work that sounds like none other, stirs fans’ ardor and fills the hall with precisely rendered melodies.On Saturday at L.A.'s ornate Orpheum Theatre, the downtown venue originally built for Vaudeville shows with a stage that has supported performances by, among many others, the Marx Brothers, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald, another singular voice presented timeless inspiration.
Joanna Newsom, a harpist/pianist from Nevada City, California, accompanied by a precise, lyrical five piece band that at various times featured violins, trombone, acoustic guitar, banjo, drums and cowbell, sang a dozen songs on topics including (in no particular order): sunlight, snow, stars, the sea, moonlight, black bears, autumn, gardens, daddy longlegs, wishbones, precious hearts, eyelashes, a darkness that “falls so fast it feels like some sort of mistake,” goldfish-eating foxes, mollusks, peaches, plums, pears, geese, barbers and butcher boys.
The singer, whose last L.A. performance was at Walt Disney Concert Hall, sat before a harp that occupied three times as much space as its player. As at the Disney performance, she spun her fingers across the strings with a driven but graceful intent, like a spider’s legs working to entangle a fly, and the precisely rendered melodies filled the hall. When she changed instruments and sat at the Steinway, which she did throughout the night, Newsom’s straw-colored hair cascaded down to the small of her back while she relayed stories of the pastoral life and the creatures that inhabit it.
Some songs on Saturday night, such as “In California,” stretched to ten minutes and beyond, as Newsom worked to convey an abstract lyrical narrative about the challenges of living away from a lover: “Some nights I just never go to sleep at all,” she sang, “and I stand shaking in the doorway like a sentinel.” Others, like “Inflammatory Writ,” arrived in compact, three minute bursts. Her lyrics are so single-mindedly focused on the natural world that the appearance in lyrics of a “bulletproof car” in “Baby Birch” felt like some sort of alien invasion (even if said vehicle was used to describe the stars above).
She opened her 75-minute set with four songs from her ambitious recent full-length, “Have One on Me,” before weaving in older titles from her previous two albums, “Ys,” from 2006 (which featured arrangements by Van Dyke Parks), and her infectious 2004 debut, “The Milk-Eyed Mender.” It was delivered via a singing voice that’s as pure is it is dynamic, one that has matured from an at-times grating shriek early in her career into an instrument able to offer a smooth, well-tended tone with measured phrasings and octave-spanning curlicues. At this point feeding her pitch-perfect vocals into an Auto-Tune program would probably cause the software to collapse in on itself.