Touring behind yet another critically acclaimed and staggeringly beautiful album, Divers, harpist and avant-folk musician Joanna Newsom performed Austin’s ACL Live at the Moody Theater last week. Like great artists from across mediums and time, Newsom’s focus on challenging art–protracted song structures, verbose lyricism, at times unconventional instrumentation–means she will never appeal to a common denominator even of open-minded independent music listeners. However, she remains one of contemporary music most vital and significant artists, and those in attendance last Wednesday were treated to an impeccable performance of songs culled from across her oeuvre. Few songwriters have contributed more to music — Tom Waits, The Flaming Lips, David Bowie, and Nick Cave come to mind. That’s the level of greatness we’re talking about.
Newsom emerged, grinning widely, to enthusiastic applause and began her set with “Bridges and Baloons,” the opening track from her debut album, Milk-Eyed Mender. Here is an artist who understands that “casual” isn’t a descriptor for her fans. Through this initial nod to her early work, Newsom ensnared the audience from the onset and never yielded their complete devotion. The move is also a testament to the irrefutable quality of Newsom’s songs. She later played a revamped, more percussive version of “Peach, Plum, Pear” from her debut. The set also included two cuts from Ys, “Cosmia” and “Emily,” and four from Have One On Me, including closer “Good Intentions Paving Company” and encore “Baby Birch.” The rest of the set leaned heavily on Divers, from which Newsom played six songs. The night’s encore also featured a cover of Judy Collins’ “Albatross,” a song indicating some of Newsom’s primary influences and one that she called “maybe her favorite — ever.”
Throughout the set, the supporting four-piece band played with precision and subtlety, buoying Newsom’s voice, piano, and trademark harp with the finesse her songs require. The fuller arrangements for older, sparser songs and the rearrangements for the songs originally worked up by Van Dyke Parks sounded elegant and transfixing.
Beyond her incredible talent as an artist, Newsom displays breathtaking affability and poise onstage. As she stopped to tune her harp about half way through the set, she called for questions from the audience and was met with a diversity of topics of inquiry: favorite albums from Judee Sill and Kendrick Lamar, relationships with Andy Samberg and P.T. Anderson. Eventually, a voice just shouted, “How’d you get that ponytail to look so GOOOOD?!” According to Newsom, it involves the blood of a unicorn, but there are some moral objections because the unicorn must be a virgin. Newsom’s wit is just as sharp as her songwriting ability, and her audience interaction adds a humanity to her show that enriches the overall aesthetic experience. Ultimately, seeing an artist of this caliber perform is a rare treat. If you weren’t able to see Newsom on this brief mini-tour of the South, keep her on your radar for future dates. It’s a show that shouldn’t be missed.
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