I feel so, like, fancy up here,” Joanna Newsom demurred from behind her signature pedal harp in a billowing evening gown, midway through her performance at L.A.’s Orpheum Theater on Saturday night. The remark was one of her many attempts to diffuse the high-culture trappings of the evening, but she needn’t have bothered. Blessed with a deep warmth that belies her music’s sprawling complexity, Newsom’s superlative 95-minute recital welcomed the audience into her eccentric world like a gracious dinner host, while at the same time challenging them to keep pace with her.
With all but three songs taken from her three-disk 2010 release, “Have One on Me,” the 28-year-old singer-harpist-pianist seemed keen to complete her transformation from a pixie-ish crafter of anachronistic folk songs into a serious composer. This was undeniably challenging music on display, featuring exacting arrangements that routinely test the 10-minute length, and pastoral lyrics that most vividly recall Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti. Yet it never felt remotely pretentious — Newsom isn’t trying to outdo her contemporaries, she’s simply playing a different game.
Performing with a five-piece band (including two violinists and a trombonist), she was assisted mightily by two chameleonic collaborators. Switching between banjo, electric guitar, mandolin, tamboura and recorder, album-arranger Ryan Francesconi offered both sweetly lyrical counterpoints and eruptive blasts of feedback, while outstanding percussionist Neal Morgan served more as Newsom’s sparring partner than her timekeeper.
Yet the focus remained fixed on Newson’s plaintive voice throughout, which can recall Kate Bush in its deceptive coyness and Joni Mitchell with its unexpected bursts into the higher register, and which has now been sanded free of the pointedly rough affectations that made her such a love-hate proposition when she first emerged onto the scene in 2004.
She could be smoky through the seductive “Easy” and angelic on show-opener ” ’81,” and the once-abrasive bleat of “Peach, Plum, Pear” has been eased into a more tender register.
In addition to the Renaissance folk and African rhythms that have long characterized her music, last night saw Newsom nod toward a growing fascination with vintage country, most notably on “Inflammatory Writ,” which was wholly transformed by the addition of a few chromatic piano flourishes and a shuffling drumbeat. Attempts to fashion a Laurel Canyon-leaning rave-up on “Good Intentions Paving Company” represented the night’s lone misstep, but coming so soon after a sparkling new arrangement of 2006’s “Cosmia,” a bit of overreaching was easy to forgive.
Yet perhaps the clearest indication of Newsom’s future intentions came during the lead-up to the encore. Ignoring widespread audience calls for “Sadie,” a jaunty 2004 madrigal addressed to her dog, she instead tackled “Baby Birch,” the 2010 ballad addressed to her unborn child. Venturing from direct admissions of guilt to cascades of nightmarish dream imagery, her lyrics here were almost breathtakingly sad, and the music followed suit as it built from a sparse, torch-song dirge into a dizzyingly-syncopated Chinese waltz. Few better songs are likely to be released this year, and few provide better proof that Newsom has emerged as one of the most ambitious and rewarding of contemporary songwriters, currently operating at the peak of her powers.