Joanna Newsom, Somerset House, London, 20/07/2008


Posted on Jul 22nd 2008 01:03 am

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Joanna Newsom, Sommerset House, London, 20/07/2008

It was a busy day for Joanna Newsom this Sunday 20 July, with no less than two performances, the first at noon at the Latitude Festival in Southwold, Suffolk, and the second in the grand settings of Somerset House in the heart of London. This had left her with very little time to familiarise herself with the evening venue. As she took her place behind her harp, she was visibly incredulous, first at how white the crowd was, then at the venue itself, whispering a shy ‘this is… mad’ as she looked around.

After a somewhat chaotic and seemingly totally unrehearsed and rather less hit than miss performance by sixties Texan avant-garde outfit The Red Krayola, Newsom’s stripped down performance was refreshingly welcome. Alone on stage, Newsom kept a totally devoted crowd mesmerised for an hour and half, braving the increasingly cold evening air as best as she could. She opened with Bridges & Balloons just as the clock sitting on the top of the west wing of Somerset House chimed 9pm, the harp and the bell for a moment perfectly in tune and in rhythm. Then it was the turn of Emily, stripped from its orchestral drapes, yet equally full of tonal contrasts as the melody ebbed and flowed. Only one more song from Ys was given an airing during the evening, namely Cosmia, in a slightly shortened form, with a rendition of the superb Colleen completing the Ys-related selection. Without the thud of the Irish percussion that paces it on record, Colleen became wonderfully delicate and fragile.

Taking her place at the piano for a moment, Newsom introduced some ‘not-so-new’ and ‘not quite finished’ songs, hinting at a possibly less lyrical and magical follow up to Ys. Somehow, the new material seemed to move away from folk to incorporate some classic country chord progressions and melodies. While Newsom scintillated at the harp, her piano expression didn’t quite have the same fluidity. This certainly didn’t in any way deter the audience, all too glad to be given an insight into some of Joanna’s more recent work. Back with the harp after a performance of Inflammatory Writ, she wrapped up the evening with Peach, Plum, Pear, Cosmia and Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie before disappearing swiftly out of the limelight. There was to be no encore, perhaps due in part to the time restrictions imposed by the venue, and in part to the lightly dressed Newsom being on the verge of freezing solid.

Newsom’s voice, which she once described as untrainable, has, in recent years, become softer and more melodic, with occasional overtones of early Kate Bush. For this performance, there were still discreet hints of the little girl’s screeches which originally made her so enduring, but the more mature tone which she has developed allowed her increased flexibility in range and emotions, which can only serve her incredibly detailed and expressive music. There is undoubtedly currently no other artist around with a vision as broad, fascinating and uncompromising at that of Joanna Newsom, and blessed were the lucky few who witnessed this unique London performance.

Drag City

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2 Responses to “Joanna Newsom, Somerset House, London, 20/07/2008”

  1. mapsadaisicalon 22 Jul 2008 at 7:37 am

    Lucky few? Do you mean lucky few thousand? Although I’ve never heard so many people making so little noise – the crowd were entranced from start to finish, and rightly so.

  2. themilkmanon 22 Jul 2008 at 8:46 am

    On a global scale, it is still just a lucky few who were there attending. You’re right though, apart from a seagull at one point, it was so incredibly quiet all the way through. I thought we’d get noise pollution from emergency vehicles or planes or just general traffic, but the courtyard at Sommerset House seemed like it was cut off the rest of the world.