Live: Joanna Newsom @ Royal Festival Hall

Joanna Newsom at ATP. Photo by: Anika

Joanna Newsom at ATP. Photo: Anika Mottershaw

As he leaves the stage, support act and folk legend Roy Harper sums the night up perfectly, before it has even happened: we are about to be treated to “one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, performing some of the best music you’re likely to hear.” Everyone knows that already of course, but to hear it vocalised suddenly makes it all the more real.

Joanna Newsom’s unquestionable talent is in exquisite form during her precise performance, which spans all three albums with the welcome outings of The Milk-Eyed Mender’s ‘The Book of Right-On’ and Ys’ ‘Monkey & Bear’. However, the majority of the set is taken up by her latest triple-album Have One on Me, which is recreated note-perfectly by her band, which, while never distracting from Newsom’s compelling position behind the harp, does prove an intriguing sight as its members make their way through her musical adventures.

One of the unexpected delights of seeing Newsom’s music played live is the ability to visualise each part of the complex arrangements. Neal Morgan’s percussion adds endless depth to the compositions, Ryan Francesconi switches between every instrument under the sun in the course of just one song, and Joanna herself bops along at the piano to ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’ before the stillness of lines like “when I only want for you to pull over and hold me/‘til I can’t remember my own name” take over. Part of Newsom’s charm as a performer is the way she embodies the music so completely: it is impossible not to be swept away into the land of ‘Have One on Me’ when you’re watching her hands flit delicately across the strings of her harp, nor fail to smile as sharp nods of her head and flicks of her Rapunzel hair punctuate a countrified ‘Inflammatory Writ’.

Throughout, the audience maintain an awed silence, absorbing every subtlety in Newsom’s performance and respectful of the almost painfully honest insights contained in songs like ‘Occident’. The night ends, all too quickly, with ‘Baby Birch’, where Francesconi’s electric guitar shrieks out, jarring uncomfortably with the tenderness of Newsom’s crystal-clear vocal, and emphasising the hidden pang in this tale of something lost.

It is a seamless performance, except perhaps for a slightly shambolic ‘question time’, where punters are invited to field questions to members of the band while Newsom tunes her harp. With questions like “what do you think about the pedestrianisation of Norwich City Centre?”, for a few bizarre minutes the audience itself is infinitely more entertaining than those on stage, until everyone’s attention is brought straight back from the brink of the absurd with the opening notes of  ‘Kingfisher’.

It is quite nice to be reminded that the ethereal being on stage is perfectly human and does mundane things like losing her tuning key; and yet, not even that brief moment of normality can stop the tremendous force of her music from carrying everyone away to a  perfectly magical place for the course of one truly remarkable evening.

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