Joanna Newsom has always been a surprise. From the time in Cambridge where Melanie and I sat entranced listening to an enthusiastic barman describe his latest find, ‘The Milk Eyed Mender,’ to the time I discreetly heard rumour of a three disc extravaganza appearing in under a month (‘Have One On Me’) to the time I stumbled upon her performing at The Sage in Gateshead following a haste move to the North.
Seeing Newsom in person is another surprise itself. Once master of playful childish voices, her voice has now grown stronger and more commanding and the three-minute ditties of ‘Milk Eyed Mender’ have given way to lavish fantasy fueled classic arrangements (courtesy of musicians and composers Ryan Francesconi and Neal Morgan). ‘Y’s’ was a vast departure when it hit the shelves in 2006, containing sixteen-minute tracks that had more in common with prog rock than the folk-pop brush critics usually used to describe her sound.
I have to mention the poetry of her words, ‘your soul is something I stir into my tea’. Small gems thread into detailed and arguably personal adventures. ‘In California’ she seemingly dismisses her early stuff ‘My home, on the old Milk Lane/where the darkness does fall so fast/it feels like some kind of mistake’. Her words shape-shift and envelope you till you can’t ‘remember your own name’ to quote set highlight ‘Good Intentions Paving Co,’ a song that sends shivers through my face everytime she wavers into ‘and the tilt of this strange nation,’ before the track polishes off with a fantastically hazy trombone solo. In a special touch the violinists downed bows to click their rings against empty bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale, a nice nod to the locals.
In a set drawing heavily from ‘Have One On Me’ Newsom also dusted off ‘Inflammatory Writ’, ‘The Book of Right On’ and ‘Peach, Plum, Pear’ as well as ‘Cosmia’ and ‘Monkey & Bear’ from ‘Ys’. A perfect set would it have been if only she had included ‘Baby Birch’ and ‘This Side of the Blue,’ but that gives me an excuse to see her again one day.
Supporting Newsom, who brought him out of ‘semi retirement’ was folk legend Roy Harper. Still strong after 40+ years in the music business Harper treated us to a range of classics from 1970’s release ‘Flat Baroque and Berserk’ including ‘Don’t You Grieve’ and ‘Francesca’ to more modern releases like ‘The Green Man’. All tracks were accompanied by top introductions and political/spiritual disagreements with the topical Papal visit, Harper rather slyly enjoying the Pope’s label for us atheists as ‘militant extremists’.
All round a fantastic night, and my first proper gig in the Newcastle/Gateshead area. It’s important though to state this gig at the Sage was on the southside in Gateshead, where we’ve recently lost a car park. Make sure you don’t mix the two up…