×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Review: Joanna Newsom at Orpheum Theatre

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.

Review: Joanna Newsom at Orpheum Theatre

More Music

  • Rob Thomas during the Chip Tooth

    Rob Thomas, INXS' Andrew Farriss Honor Late Michael Hutchence With Surprise Duet

    More than two decades since INXS frontman Michael Hutchence died, beloved ballad  “Never Tear Us Apart” is still being heard in venues throughout Australia and as recently as Saturday night (Nov. 16), when Matchbox Twenty singer Rob Thomas brought out INXS’ Andrew Farriss to the stage. The two led a poignant 9,000-person singalong at Bimbadgen [...]

  • SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Harry Styles"

    Harry Styles Premieres New Song, Plays Trash-Eating Dog on ‘Saturday Night Live’ (Watch)

    The past couple of seasons of “Saturday Night Live” have seen some impressive hosting/musical performer double-duty stints, including Childish Gambino, Halsey and Chance the Rapper — and last night Harry Styles was more than up to the challenge. The singer appeared in nearly every skit — including turns as a naïve office intern, a gangster, [...]

  • Bruce Springsteen

    Bruce Springsteen Stuns Fans With Two-Hour Set at Jersey Shore Club Stone Pony (Watch)

    Bruce Springsteen stunned attendees at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey Saturday night with a two-hour performance at a private event benefiting Boston College. The lucky 400 attendees for the invite-only event got a 22-song set that included hits from his albums “Born in the USA,” “Born to Run,” “Greetings from Asbury Park,” [...]

  • Elizabeth Warren Taylor Swift

    Elizabeth Warren Backs Taylor Swift in Big Machine Battle, Slams Private Equity Firms

    Taylor Swift’s battle with Big Machine has spilled into the political arena. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren retweeted Swift’s Thursday message about her former record label preventing her from performing her old hits at the American Music Awards, adding that Swift is “one of many whose work as been threatened by a private equity firm.” [...]

  • Cynthia Erivo

    Cynthia Erivo Almost Gave Up Singing to Become a Spinal Surgeon

    Before Cynthia Erivo went on to become a Tony and Grammy winner, she nearly gave up singing to be a spinal surgeon. In her “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors” conversation with Alfre Woodard, the “Harriet” star said she had been singing since she was toddler. Her mother noticed she’d hum while eating her food when [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content