Friday, February 25, 2005

the sprout and the bean

"If you could spare it, could I get just a little bit more harp in the monitor, please?" Joanna Newsom asks from the stage, her eyes cast upward to the soundman in the back of the room.

"WHOO!" Someone in the crowd yelps in delight. It's Newsom's second request to hear more of her instrument, and it's the second time a portion of the audience has celebrated her wants.

She smiles sheepishly. "That's, um, just so I can hear it."

Such was the level of rapt adoration on display at the Troubadour in West Hollywood last night. Joanna Newsom has been compared to a pixie, a fairy, a "Lord of the Rings" outtake, a sprite and, I believe by Dave Eggers, one who could ward off the plague. None of these are true, naturally, but given the illogic of someone like Joanna Newsom selling out a Thursday night at a major music venue with nothing but a warbling voice and a harp between her knees, it's natural to suspect larger forces at work.

Newsom's debut record, "The Milk Eyed Mender" is perhaps the epitome of an acquired taste. With its surreal, stream-of-consciousness talk of mollusk weddings and beetle shells combined with the tumbling, twinkling sound of the harp--perhaps the least indie rock instrument on the planet next to the oboe--"Mender" managed to be unlike anything else and yet still accessible. Newsom's voice, a warbly, wandering hummingbird that could resembles a self-actualized Lisa Simpson, reaches in and out of key so freely that it passes by golden-eared expectations and approaches the realm of outsider art. Newsom doesn't sound like music should, but she sounds exactly as she should, and that fact coupled with the sheer joy pouring from her every song filled the Troubadour with hippies, introverts and art school tourists looking for the source of a record that against all odds landed on several year-end best of lists.

Newsom approached the stage in a vintage top and tight jeans, a somewhat surprising departure from her usual prediliction for tailored granny dresses. Her petite frame and impossibly fresh face do nothing to discourage the Tolkein-drawn comparisons, and the Ren-faire crown of shiny silver discs on her head also added the feeling that she was fresh from a Shire bridal party.

But then, after a pause to tune the enormous beast, she sat down at her harp and the entire Troubadour fell silent. Los Angeles is not generally a city kind to performing acts; its reputation as a home for passionate music fans in the front and passionate conversationalists in the back pretty much stretches around the globe. But on this night, with a shaft of light wrapping around her as if it had always been there, Newsom held the room to the sort of reverent silence the harp is accustomed to in classical audiences.

Newsom mostly played tracks from her album coupled with a few new ones. The only augmentation was a brief and oddly off-putting flirtation with vocal reverb for one song, but for the most part the songs remained true to their original form. Occasionaly she would stretch verses a little further with her playing, other times she couldn't resist sending her voice even higher out of her range, like a child stretching for a cookie jar just out of her reach.

Each song was greeted with rapturous applause and cheers that sent Newsom into a wide smile as she sipped from a bottle of water. On this night in a darkened club she was something more supernatural and unlikely than all the mythical beings she was compared with above. She was a star.


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