There are few songwriters in modern music with such a polarizing effect on listeners as Joanna Newsom. The Californian may well be possessed of the voice of an angel, or that of a five year old child in considerable pain, depending on who you talk to. However, if you could get beyond her particular vocal style on her first two albums you were treated to a head-spinning showcase of uninhibited songwriting; smart, funny, hugely imaginative and truly ambitious. On her most recent album, the one she is here in the Grand Canal Theatre to promote, ‘Have One On Me’, things have changed somewhat. Due to a variety of reasons, including fears over the long term safety of her voice, Newsom has toned down her trademark yelp and has hit upon a more conventional timbre. Though it is still as sweet as could be, there is more depth and more expression than ever before. It could also, at times, be called downright sultry.
Beginning with a solo rendition of ‘Jackrabbits’, Newsom pulls song after song from the two hour, three disc epic that is Have One On Me. Backed by an outrageously talented group of musicians headed by the multi-instrumentalist and composer extraordinaire Ryan Francesconi, Newsom’s harp, piano and vocals are adorned with elegant, humble arrangements of violin, horns and a multitude of string instruments wielded by Francesconi. Neil Morgan’s drums are another development in Newsom’s sound and he is on top form tonight, as precise and expressive as ever.
As with any expansive oeuvre, Newsom could have easily compiled another set of at least equal strength from the songs she didn’t play, with some of the audience no doubt disappointed not to hear the likes of ’81’, ‘Esme’, ‘Go Long’ or ‘The Book of Right On’. All the same, what she did play was stunning. The simple beauty of ‘Easy’, the uneasy blues of ‘Soft As Chalk’ and the toe-tapping horn coda of ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’ were all distinct highlights. Dipping into her back catalogue for a re-arranged ‘Monkey & Bear’, ‘Inflammatory Writ’ and the encore of ‘Peach, Plum Pear’, Newsom’s two hour set is practically flawless, with an impromptu question and answer session lightening the mood along the way. In short, tonight’s show is terrific; a rare chance to see a boundlessly talented songwriter at the very top of her game. Superb.
Photo: Damien McGlynn