posted on June 05, 2010 19:00
Joanna Newsom (live in La Villette, Paris, 31 May 2010)
Review Snapshot: An excellent album takes flight as a sensational live show. With careful arrangements, the indie harpist and her band deliver a dramatic and stirring performance with all the force of a full orchestra.
The Cluas Verdict? 9 out of 10
Full Review: "Kate Bush," says someone behind us, trying to describe tonight's star before she appears on stage. It's an understandable comparison, given that both ladies write idiosyncratic songs which they then sing in an arabesque upper register.
But it would be more interesting and accurate to compare Joanna Newsom with Owen Pallett, appearing at the same venue the following night as part of an imaginative 'Villette Sonique' series of shows. Ostensibly indie acts, both singers make sweeping, ambitious music beyond categorisation, flavoured by diverse influences like show tunes and American folk - yet their songs retain the joyful simplicity of great pop.
And Newsom, like Pallett, has released a fantastic album in 2010. Given that it's an 18-track, three-disc collection, 'Have One On Me' makes up most of tonight's set. And if you think the record is great, wait 'til you hear these songs live.
With great skill and judgement, Newsom has transformed the album's discreet arrangements into dramatic interventions. Like a mercurial striker who only gets two touches but scores both times, her five-piece backing band can sit out most of a song before contributing a careful yet crucial part. The trombone part of 'Good Intentions Paving Company', the highlight of tonight's show, is transformed into a sensational solo by Andrew Strain.
And drummer Neal Morgan rarely does anything as mundane as keep time or set the beat - but he'll suddenly burst in with a percussion fill that almost crosses from rhythm to melody. In this way, a small band plays with the power and scope of an orchestra. This suits songs like '81' and 'Ribbon Bows', built like symphonies with stirring movements that resolve themselves by returning to an original theme. The sense of drama is overpowering.
Meanwhile, her in the grey gingham dress is in girlish, giggly form. "You guys are a good looking crowd!" she quips. "What are you all doing after the show?" Hopping between harp and piano, Newsom shows dazzling virtuosity on both instruments. And after a recent operation on her vocal cords, Newsom's voice has lost its most divisive squeaks and shrills. 'Peach Plum Pear' (one of the few oldies she plays tonight) sounds softer and more heartfelt.
Tonight's show, filling a two-thousand-seater hall, offers a fascinating glimpse of a singer on the threshold of crossing from small-scale indie heroine to real-deal star. Years from now she'll be a reference point herself as we try to comprehend some other young innovator.