Live Music + Gig Reviews

Joanna Newsom @ Royal Albert Hall, London

28 September 2007

Joanna Newsom“This is a biiig room”. Yes, Joanna, and you’re such a small thing. But size isn’t everything. And while the standoff may have looked David vs. Goliath in reality it actually, uh, was. But this time, David was packing a harp.

From the moment this slight, blonde Californian shyly walked on stage and let the glittery strains of Bridges and Balloons surface, to the moment she made her exit clutching an enormous bouquet of flowers, Newsom was mesmeric, and offered the kind of hushed reverence which makes state funerals feel like curry night at Wetherspoons.

Unlike her gigs earlier this year, this time there was no orchestra, just a simple three-piece set of backing musicians. But any concern around how this pared down selection would replicate some of the more complex arrangements of Ys quickly paled into insignificance as, firstly, the music had been confidently rejigged to take into account the shifting of numbers, and secondly, the most staggering moments were those when Newsom and her harp were left alone.

Thus Sawdust and Diamonds became an exercise in seeing how far your jaw could drop without dislocating; Newsom’s hands dancing faster and faster across innumerable strings, the music rising and falling, swooping and diving, melodies and notes springing up in unexpected places, like flowers bursting through concrete.

But when called upon, her backing band didn’t let her down. Only Skin was a opus of amazing dimensions with an ending of heartbreaking emotion: Newsom’s otherworldly voice imparting the closing declaration of “I love you truly / Or I love no-one“, with the kind of despair normally associated with the words ‘charity collaboration”.

Of course, the fact that to get to it you’ve been taken down so many beautiful side roads, drifting through fields of folk, catching up with gypsy caravans, gallivanting through the gloriously kooky meadows of her imagination, made it all the better.

Through it all, Newsom is a picture of humbleness. Unable to shift an expression of surprised delight throughout, like she can’t possibly believe why five thousand people would cram into this hall and then spend the best part of two hours doing their best impressions of Rodin’s Thinker, unable to tear their eyes away.

Although after a year of similar responses, she’d better get used to it. Either that, or stop producing moments as magical as tonights rendition of the utterly beguiling Clam Cockle Crab Cowie.

Calling them songs is almost distasteful. Craig David produces songs. The constructions on display here deserve something with more weight. More respect. But call them what you want because, frankly, after tonight you can say balls to flag waving Brits singing songs of pomp and circumstance. After tonight, they should pack up the Albert Hall and give it to her.

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More on Joanna Newsom
Joanna Newsom @ Hammersmith Apollo, London
Joanna Newsom – Divers
Joanna Newsom @ Palace Theatre, Manchester
Joanna Newsom @ Royal Festival Hall, London
Festival Preview: ATP/Groening