by The Spin
The last time we caught Joanna Newsom was 2006. Ys had just come out, and Newsom wooed a small crowd of above-the-curve hipsters with a handful of fresh harp jams. Now, with Newsom fresh off a gig at Big Ears Fest that had non-NCAA tourney followers blowing up the Twit-o-sphere and a mammoth third album, we were curious what her then-meager cult looked like now. Thanks to our over-eagerness about a new episode of The Pacific on HBO (we got all busted up over that last scene with Leckie and Stella, not gonna lie) we missed Fleet Foxes singer Robin Pecknold's assuredly wispy set of solo folk tunes. Instead, we straggled into Mercy Lounge just as Newsom was finishing her first song. There, we discovered a sea of bearded folkies sitting cross-legged on the floor, all the way from the foot of the stage to the bathrooms in back.
We later learned that, after finishing "Bridges and Balloons," Newsom asked how everyone was doing, and when a few people shouted, "Everybody should sit down!" everybody ... well, sat down. How un-rock 'n' roll. Granted, Newsom's brand of avant-folk isn't exactly dubstep, but the whole situation felt a little awkward. We took a seat by the stairs, unwilling to stumble through the PBR minefield for a beer of our own.
There's a popular conception about Joanna Newsom that you either hate her or love her. We fall somewhere in the middle: We'll spin a J-New record from time to time, but a little goes a long way. At least we thought we fell somewhere in the middle -- over the course of an hour and a half, we might have moved a little closer to that second group. Newsom rolled through 10 songs, mostly from Have One on Me, with the exception of setlist cornerstones "The Book of Right-On," "Monkey & Bear" and the aforementioned opener. The new songs dispense with the Baroque heaviness of Ys, instead opting for a warmer, more comfortable sound akin to Southern folk.
Newsom's strength lies more in her composition and arrangement than her voice. Even stripped down so that she and a handful of multi-instrumentalists can tackle them, her songs have a sort of clever power to them that's hard to resist. If Newsom wasn't supported by that safety net of top-notch musicians, the whole thing might be liable to fall apart, but it was, if nothing else, one of the best-sounding shows we've ever been to -- a welcome change from '06, when Newsom chastised some overly chatty sound guys.
By the time Newsom & Co. finished "Good Intentions Paving Company," song eight of 10, we all gave up on this sitting business and stood -- much to the chagrin of all the short people in the place. We've got to admit, we kinda missed it when it was gone. The docility sparked by a crowd of seated super-fans made the atmosphere of the joint homier than the average rock show. Even if it stood in the way of us and our beer, we're definitely pro-sitting when we can get away with it.