Joanna Newsom @ Sydney Opera House, 25/1/08


The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is poised as the tiny songstress shimmies onto stage in her best elegant black dress. The crowd adores her, hands clapping respectfully in unison. It’s wonderfully odd that so many different kinds of fans are out in full-force, ranging from grey-haired concerto going types to young indie-punk kids and everything in-between. That’s the effect a change in venue and marketing can have on a performance with tonight’s event being held at the world famous Sydney Opera House as part of the Sydney Festival.

As Joanna settles into position behind the weight of the heavy harp I’m hoping that within the context of the live show I can reach a greater appreciation of her last album Ys (pronounced ‘eees’). True fans consider it an epic of brilliant proportion with its medieval bookish charms, citing how clever she is to break out of that impish freak-folk format and reach for broader stars. Well, unfortunately I’m a fickle fan. Give me the girl who kills her dinner with karate in under three minutes any day. The very thing that makes Ys so acclaimed, that long meandering storytelling, is also what makes it so difficult to enjoy for others. The verses are too tightly packed within the overall song structure leaving little breathing space (no time for sweet harpsichord solos here). Add to that sense of claustrophobia, a delivery that obscures the privileged narrative. Her voice, a monotonous frail canary with that predictable cackle fraying the high notes just isn’t up to the task. The strings are urging the listener to emote on cue which just adds to the overwhelming sense of absurdity I feel about the spectacle before me.

At the midway mark, Newsom announces that she’ll be back after the break to play some old songs with the band. She returns, now wearing a short, backless dress, an asymmetrical balloon sculpting around her hips. There’s an overwhelming sense of lightness now that the orchestra has departed. A wolf whistle escapes above the first cheers of the night to which Newsom replies, “You’re admiring the acoustics, right?” and suddenly everything seems so much more relaxed. Suffice to say, less is more.

Renae Mason


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  1. I felt that this was an amazing show but for those who didn’t love Ys it was a tough way to start – hardest material first – and I agree that there really was a noticeable lightening of mood in the second half. But that doesn’t mean the first half was necessarily bad, just hard.

    The super dense narratives and vocal gymnastics* of the Ys material almost needs the lyric sheet at hand (provided in the album liner). For those, and there were several near me, who had picked the concert on the basis that it was a) in the Sydney Festival programme, b) at the Opera House Concert Hall, and c) included the SSO (in a programme low on classical music), it would have been a big leap.

    The new material that she performed after the interval (along with a few from Milk Eyed Mender) is less dense, almost jaunty, like ‘Colleen’ from her Joanna Newsom & The Ys Street Band EP of last year. Those new songs, still untitled, were fantastic and the low key band accompaniments sounded fantastic in the Concert Hall space.

    Even better than her Speigeltent show on 2007.

    (* I’ve been thinking that her lyrics and dense delivery on Ys are a little like Dose One’s early material with Anticon. Voice an acquired taste, lyrics possibly overly complicated . . . miss one pun or rhyme and forget it.)

  2. For me the over-privileging of the narrative/lyrics in Newsom’s work is a real problem. There’s just no way of coming to her songs cold, and being able to derive much enjoyment from them. I respect the fact that she’s an artist you have to work at, but in a live setting her aims as a storyteller (and she does seem to set herself up not so much as a folk songwriter but as a balladeer, harking back to that old tradition of oral storytelling) fail, because there is no way into the story unless you already know it. Leaving aside the whimsy of her lyrics (I’m not even sure that she’s telling a story worth hearing), there is nothing in her vocal phrasing or rhythms which pulls you in. Nothing in the texture of her voice either, aside from that Minnie Mouse aspect – her pacing and delivery are, as Renae said, monotonous.

    There was one song she played in the first half (‘Sawdust and Diamonds’, I believe it was) that I enjoyed much more than the rest, and it was the only Ys song she played without the orchestra. For me the orchestral arrangement was bland, a kind of Disney symphony, and it illuminated nothing about the material.

  3. When Joanna premiered songs from Ys during her first Australian tour in 2005 they worked brilliantly. They’re dense songs but I don’t feel they’re difficult to approach, I came cold to these songs and fell in love immediately. Joanna has a very distinctive voice and writes all her music on a harp, some might find it monotonous because there isn’t much textural variety in her music. I would recommend sitting down with the lyric sheet and giving the album some time, in the same way you might a Scott Walker album. It’s challenging and far removed from the whimsy of Milk-eyed Mender.

  4. Ys can be hard listening – for the first few times it requires concentration to follow some melodies and interpreting the lyrics is difficult. Having listened to Ys many times however, and having seen Joanna play without the orchestra in 2006, seeing the album performed in completion with the Sydney Symphony was a surreal experience. It was without doubt one of the best shows I have ever been to & seeing Joanna perform a second time only makes me want to see more.

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