The immaculate setting of Marlay Park makes this seem much more like a country club garden party than a gig; the fine weather and the fact that most people milling around are here to see a girl play the harp adds to the feeling of being at a Juilliard recital. Joanna Newsom greets the audience with childlike delight, all the while politely batting away shouted cries of devotion from admirers. We’re so used to indie boys staring seriously (sometimes confusedly) at their four- or 6-string weapons that seeing this petite young woman take control of a harp brings a smile to the face, along with a sense of wonder.
Beginning with ‘Bridges And Balloons’, Newsom’s familiar singing voice is more illusory in real life than in recordings, seeming almost superimposed on the image of the girl in the flowery dress. Having a voice that is characteristically marked by its fragility, it is a surprise just how loud this girl can sing. Her voice doesn’t falter and there’s no hint of songs being reworked to make them easier to recite – each note is hit just as it is on the albums. At times she shouts fiercely, which is no mean feat as she has both arms perpetually in use whilst crouched beside a harp considerably larger than she is. She twists and turns her mouth while singing in a manner that’s charmingly reminiscent of Samantha in Bewitched’s nose-twitching as she casts a spell.
‘Have One On Me’ showcases the talents of her band, the drummer is almost like a foley artist, narrating Newsom’s tales with sound effects, suggesting spider-like movements with the gentle teasing tickle of the cymbal. Other instruments are also used in this fashion; the dramatic screech of the violin signifying tension whereas the guitar and banjo add depth to quiet, serious moments. Tight vocal harmonies are provided by the band as well, some of them locking eyes at times to concentrate and smiling at each other when they succeed.
The first night of a tour is never completely smooth sailing and there’s a sprinkling of mistakes tonight, familiar passages being altered to work around the errors at a speed that brings new meaning to the phrase ‘thinking on your feet’. Newsom admits that it’s good to get playing live shows again as it’s been a while and admits to nerves, a confession so endearing that the audience are with her every step of the way, even when she has to ask the lighting engineer not to shine pink lights on her harp strings as it makes it difficult to see which notes she is playing, a request that might come across as precious if uttered by anyone else.
It’s a set that travels from near silence and tales of ships to a jazz shuffle when Newsom moves to the piano to play newer material, most notably on ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’. The whole show is a joyous union between the band, of band and audience, and of the audience as a whole.