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.