At around midpoint in her show at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday, the first of a two-night stint at the refurbished movie palace in downtown L.A., the audience spontaneously peppered Joanna Newsom with a barrage of questions as she was tuning her harp: “What do you dream about at night?” “What’s the best book you’ve ever read?” “What’s your favorite Kate Bush album?”
The Bush query points to Newsom’s spiritual connection to the English singer-songwriter known for her baroque lyrics and rather eccentric phrasing. Newsom’s rabid cult following might also have to do with music that can’t be easily categorized and an image that paints her as artistic renegade, style icon (Michael van der Ham designed the flowy dresses for her tour) and entertainment royalty (her marriage to actor Andy Samberg is the culprit here) all at once. The almost otherworldly nature of her music even inspired a tribute book and an album of covers barely six years into her recording career. And Paul Thomas Anderson, who used her angelic presence to great effect in “Inherent Vice,” directed a couple of videos tied to her latest LP, “Divers,” that ended up debuting theatrically. Talk about event marketing.
The uninitiated might find themselves both transfixed and impatient with Newsom’s live performance, given the theatricality of a singing style that can lapse from a coo to a curdle — what some might refer to as a “baby voice,” the kind of tone heard when adults are at their most vulnerable. It’s almost as if Newsom is playing a character in her shows, or becomes possessed by a kind of pixie-ish alter ego. The denseness of her songwriting certainly makes this artist an acquired taste.
Take for example the lyrics of her single, “Sapokanikan,” from “Divers,” which she played late in the show: “The cause is Ozymandian/The map of Sapokanikan/is sanded and beveled/the land lone and leveled/by some unrecorded and powerful hand/which plays along the monument/and drums upon a plastic bag.” Ozymandias is a reference to a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem, and Sapokanikan is the name of a place in Manhattan that was once the province of the Native American Lenape tribe. It’s the kind of arcana that students struggled with in their Romantic lit courses, and to Newsom’s credit, she’s not interested in making any of it — whether the content or the structure — easy on the listener.
“I don’t think that any of (my songs) are verse, chorus, verse and so on,” she has been quoted as saying. “They are not simple.”
What they are is unquantifiable, although the New York Times, in reviewing “Divers,” called the work reflective of the “serious singer-songwriter folk-pop of the 1970s, American fold traditions, art song and operetta.” There was all that and more in the Orpheum show, including the kind of choral singing associated with Renaissance-era madrigals, and a level of musicianship that was stunning to behold.
Newsom herself alternated effortlessly between her majestic-sized pedal harp and the grand piano, while her support, led by multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi (guitar, tabura, naval, recorder, bass, banjo, keyboards), also rotated easily between bowed and plucked instruments to keyboards and reeds. But the overall effect was that of a stringed chamber group, with Mirabai Peart and Veronique Serret gorgeously filling in the spaces with violin and back-up vocals.
When it all comes together, such as on “Good Intentions Paving Co.,” from her epic three-CD album “Have One On Me” (2010), an expression of love both personal and universal, the end result is like something that’s never been heard before, and likely will never be duplicated in quite the same way again.