Posted on May 14th 2010 12:42 am
It was a Royal Festival Hall packed to the rafters that welcomed Joanna Newsom on the second of her two London dates this Wednesday evening. She had managed to convince her musical hero, Roy Harper, to open for her for these two shows, as she had a few years ago at the Royal Albert Hall. Harper, who was performing live for only the second time following a three year break, played a selection of songs, most of them dating back to the late sixties and early seventies (The Green Man, Another Day or Me And My Woman to name but a few), his voice, strong, with rich overtones and deep reaches, effortlessly filling the RFH, while he alternated between two electro-acoustic guitars, at times so utterly fragile and ephemeral, at other incredibly gritty and violent. Despite the man qualifying his performance of ‘less than brilliant’, at times warning ‘watch the rust fall off’ in reference to his confessed lack of practice, Harper totally captured the attention of his audience and gathered warm and rightly deserved applause at the end of his set. Before leaving the stage, he gave Joanna Newsom heartfelt thanks for inviting him to open for her, a thank you that was to be returned on more than one occasion during Newsom’s set.
Walking on stage alone, Newsom, wearing a flowing summer dress, took her place at the harp and, after spending a little time settling down, during which an unplanned encounter with a faulty microphone nearly deafened the congregation, she opened with Jackrabbits, seeming particularly fragile as harp and voice resonated through the auditorium, before her musicians, led by multi-instrumentist Ryan Francesconi, the man responsible for the arrangements on Newsom’s recent album, took their place around her and, for the next hour and a half, punctuated Newsom’s performance with delicate touches. Francesconi, playing anything from guitar and Bulgarian tambura to kaval, a flute-like instrument, and drummer Neil Morgan, each occupying one end of the stage, were the most prominent contributors to the evening, even taking it in turn to address the audience during an odd joke exchange between the audience and the stage whilst Newsom retuned her harp later in the show. Songs from the new album made up most of the set, with Have One On Me, Easy or In California taking proud place in the performance, whilst old classics The Book Of Right-On, Inflammatory Writ and Peach Plum Pear also made an appearance. While Newsom’s voice has greatly matured since The Milk-Eyed Mender was recorded, partly due to a series of vocal cord nodes which she had removed last year, there were on these songs hints of the harsher tones that characterized her early recordings. The subject of a series of performances with orchestras around the world three years ago, Ys was largely overlooked tonight, with only Emily making the set list, but despite the restricted formation, it still managed to convey the same raw emotions than the much more orchestrated version she played with the LSO in 2007
All throughout the evening, Newsom regularly swapped the harp for the piano. She is not, it has to be said, the greatest of pianists, her style often feeling heavy and clunky, and lacking the fluidity of her harp playing. This is perhaps even more obvious live, yet, this said, she makes up in disarming honesty what she lacks in technique. The playful interplay she and Morgan entered into on Soft As Chalk was quite a delight to watch, and there were visible signs of enjoyment on her face as she performed Good Intentions Paving Company. The ensemble left the stage under thunderous applause following a rendition of Peach Plum Pear, but quickly returned. Joanna Newsom, once again at the harp, roses, thrown by members of the audience, scattered at her feet, led her ensemble into the superb Baby Birch to bring the show to a close.
While her band provided invaluable support throughout the set, it was very much Joanna who was carrying the show on her shoulders. She is, underneath her delicate figure, a tremendously fearless performer, and she proved it again with a faultless concert tonight.