by / September 16th, 2010 /

Joanna Newsom – Grand Canal Theatre

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

  • Andrew

    Agree with the review with one exception, you refer to a “two hour set”. She came on at 9:30pm and it was all over with the lights on before 11pm, it wasn’t even a one and a half hour set. Compared to the shows on her recent US tour, it was a pretty short set of just 10 songs compared to the usual 12 or 13 she usually plays.

  • Peter

    Roy Harper made a reference to starting late during his support slot. He said something along the lines of: he was supposed to start at half 7 but because people were so slow to move into the auditorium he wasn’t allowed to start til 8.05. Which to me, sounded like the promoter/venue owner hadn’t sold enough drink at the bar. I was also speaking to an usher who said JN was supposed to play from 9 til 10.45. Still, Great show. Ifitwas three hours long I’d have still wanted more.

  • dermot

    Very enjoyable show, the complexity of the band arrangements and the scope of her more epic compositions is impressive. It does introduce a sort of classical recital-like stiffness to the event and I think I preferred the magical intimacy of her solo performances a few years back. As was said above it felt short even at an hour and a half long, a couple more short songs at the end would have rounded it off (I can imagine only having just 3 older tunes all night would be disappointing if you didn’t catch her previous tours). I was very impressed with the new theatre, perfect sound where I was sitting halfway back though I’ve heard that people nearer the front had issues with the instrumental balance.

  • I was sitting seven rows from the front and heard no instrumental imbalance. An absolutely superb show. Very different set to when I saw her in London at May, I prefered this.