"Sawdust and diamonds": Joanna Newsom at the Opera House with the Sydney Symphony
If you do have tickets, don't be late! There's no support act. It's all Joanna.
(Joanna Newsom, photo: Pete Newsom)
As a buddy of Julia Zemiro's -- and a RocKwiz devotee -- I often ask myself how I'd answer her "first concert?" question. It's not that I'm embarrassed about the first few concerts I went to as a teen... it's just they're so unrepresentative. Or, rather, that they're representative of a tiny part of the music I was (and am) into. First concerts are about opportunism, about getting to the concert. (Maybe the question should be qualified... What was the first concert you made it to on your own? Now that would be a question worth asking!)
Anyway, without rummaging through The Archives, I reckon the first was Melanie Safka at Dallas Brooks Hall. (Either her or Fairport Convention at the same venue. Sandy Denny was still alive, but had left the band.) In those days, 'Melanie' was as unique and sufficient an ID as 'Madonna' became twenty years later. And the 'Safka' bit was about as well known as 'Ciccone'. She's best known to Gen-xers for the Boogie Nights "Roller Girl" song 'Brand New Key'.
When I first encountered Joanna Newsom's first release The Milk-Eyed Mender, the best I could say about it was that it reminded me -- once or twice -- of Melanie. (Bits also reminded me of Mazzy Star -- just the pedal steel-like glides -- and, inevitably, of Alan Stivell's Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique... and please note the name of the first song on that album!) That said, the bits of Melanie it reminded me of were the annoying 'Alexander Beetle' bits.
And, if I might digress one last time, Melanie -- in that first concert experience of mine -- called for requests. She ignored my pleas for 'Some Say' [I always was a B-side kinda guy... 'Some Say (I Got Devil)' was the brilliant flip of 'Brand New Key' ]. "I heard a child's voice," she said. The kid wanted to hear 'Alexander Beetle'. She was brow-beaten into playing it by the loud-mouth bloke who relayed the request. A nice bit of theatre... Which happened the next night. And the next night. No-one seems to have heard the kid's voice apart from Ms Safka herself. My first concert and my first taste of musical mendacity. Sigh!
Anyway, I bought The Milk-Eyed Mender "sight unseen" on the strength of the universal acclaim it was getting from the indie music press around the world.
And I hated it.
But, weirdly, when an advance copy of the follow-up release Ys fell into my hands, I couldn't wait to listen to it. I put it at the top of a pretty big pile.
Watching Newsom play the five song set live, with the Sydney Symphony, I vividly remembered the first time I heard Ys and, in particular, the anxiety I felt as the first song (the twelve minute-plus 'Emily') ended and the second song began. What if the rest of the album was crap? What if the genius of 'Emily' wasn't sustained? How could it be? Given that the first seconds of 'Monkey and Bear' are a throw-back to extremes and eccentricities of The Milk-Eyed Mender, my fears looked grounded.
Why the 'flashbad' during the concert? Cos of the people I was sitting with. I was in the midst of Sydney Festival patrons rather than Newsom fans. Behind me was a couple expecting a concert with a harp soloist. I kid you not! (I overheard several comments along the lines of: "I've never seen a harp soloist before.") On my right were a group of rather glamorous women who looked infinitely more at home at the Opera House than the legions of waif-like Newsom fans in the gods.
And, yes, once the orchestra departed -- at interval -- so did a good number of the classical music fans. (The glam girls to my right -- who chose which Festival shows to see with a pin -- were groovin' away, even more smitten with Newsom when they had heard her with her "band" -- Joanna's word for mandolin & banjo playing "Frenchie" Ryan Francesconi and percussionist/backing vocalist Neal Morgan.) So, my anxiety was only partly warranted.
Good as the first half was -- Ys in its lush entirety with a bantam-sized orchestra -- it lacked the "now we are alone" quality of the second set. The eight songs included the traditionally folky 'Colleen' from the recent EP Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band and two new songs... So new that they don't yet have titles. One even came with the caveat that the lyrics were still in a state of flux. But I'll say more about the concert (I typed 'convert' first... there were one or two!) some other time.
Joanna Newsom with the Sydney Symphony, part of the 2008 Sydney Festival. Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, January 25, 2008. (Final concert tonight, January 26.) Also Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic conducted by Michael Christie, January 31 & February 1, 2008.