Joanna Newsom Brings A Bristol Crowd To Life

by Dom Ford

“Hey,” said Joanna sheepishly as she walked onto the stage. With no further words, her and her band of multi-instrumentalists began with the nostalgic and wistful opening to her debut 2004 album, The Milk-Eyed Mender.

“We sailed away on a Winter’s day

With fate and malleable clay

But ships are fallible, I say,

And the nautical, like all things, fades”.

Starting with such a throwback track for her set the precedent for a largely unpredictable set. There were, of course, plenty of tracks from the new album, but it didn’t feel like an advert for it. Tracks old and new were interspersed in perfect cadence.

Before Joanna, I managed to catch the end of the support act, Alasdair Roberts. With no accompaniment to his voice and guitar, Roberts seemed undaunted by the imposing size of the Colston Hall surrounding him. His Scottish folk – complete with songs about finding one’s clan and all – struck a chord with much of the audience. Although specific in subject matter, his lyrics somehow appealed to more universal longings.

“Sometimes you play the right chords, and sometimes you play the wrong chords,” began Joanna, “I have a lot of experience with that.” With her modest and somewhat few interactions with the audience, she hints at a greater story, but lets the music speak for itself. After the opening of her show which included a few beautifully-rendered tracks from the new album, Divers, she began Emily, the opening song from her landmark album Ys. “The meadow lark and the chim-choo-ree and the sparrow / Set to the sky in a flying spree”, the opening lines prompted an eruption of cheers and applause. I’ve never seen an audience so excited by the prospect of a twelve-minute song. Emily is, like much of Newsom’s discography, deeply personal. Although cryptic in lyrics, she insists it’s biographical, a touching story of her and her astrophysicist sister.

Jumping to and from each instrument on stage (drums, harp, piano, keyboard, violin, viola, electric guitar, banjo, amongst many others), her four accompanying multi-instrumentalists proved themselves extremely talented, hardly staying in the same place on the same instrument for more than one song. This is clearly a group where the music is free to dictate, unhindered by restricted musical ability. The result is a show where each element feels carefully chosen and handpicked for each song. Newsom herself stayed centre-stage, moving between only harp and grand piano, displaying great talent on both.

Closing the show to the final song of Divers – Time, As A Symptom – was met by a thunderous standing ovation that didn’t end until Newsom returned to the stage to play one song alone, and then the rest of her crew joined for one final, final song. Joanna Newsom live proved near-studio quality vocal and playing technique, yet modest and very likeable despite saying few words. If one of her shows ever comes near you, it is not to be missed.