Review: Joanna Newsom at Sydney Opera House (Sydney Festival)
January 27th 2016
Photo: Annabel Mehran / Sydney Festival
There’s this pat saying – you’ve probably heard it – never meet your heroes.
If there’s any truth to it then I think it applies equally to hearing your favourite songs performed live. Just as there’s a danger that your idol’s personality may jar with his or her persona as presented to the public, you may be disappointed with the sound of a cherished song unmediated by the recording studio.
For some artists, the risk of disappointment is mitigated by incorporating the sound of live performance into their studio albums. Mazzy Star’s vocals sound like they were recorded by doing little more than placing a Shure SM58 at the back of one of the band’s club gigs. Other artists hedge against it by making songs that are easily replicable in a live context.
Joanna Newsom’s music exhibits neither of these traits. Her albums are hyper compressed and devoid of reverb; they exist in a world that is airtight and sealed off. And their instrumentation – which interweaves harp, piano, strings and, latterly, drums – is such that faithful reproduction in concert is no mean feat.
All of which is to say that I was slightly nervous about seeing her perform at the Opera House on 21 January.
Before we get to the show: I’m not a musical reactionary. I don’t think that concerts should be judged by the degree to which they sound like an artist’s recordings. It’s just that I love Joanna Newsom’s music to an extent that’s unseemly, which means that there’s a lot of potential for expectations to remain unfulfilled. Fine.
She opened with the first song of her first record: ‘Bridges and Balloons’ from 2004’s The Milk Eyed Mender. Built upon a bright staccato harp-riff and unaccompanied by other instruments, it wandered into the cavernous interior of the Concert Hall with a sparseness that was charmingly at odds with the plush interior.
The band consisted of a guitar and banjo player, two violin-playing back-up singers and a drummer. Their playing was impeccable throughout: no mistimed notes, no off-pitch harmonies. This coordination was perhaps most evident in ‘Have One On Me’, the 11-minute title track from Newsom’s third album, in which rapidly plucked, ascending scales were mirrored flawlessly between the harp and banjo.
Newsom’s singing was on point. The acoustics of the Concert Hall were apt to capture the idiosyncrasies of her voice. The trademark vibrato, those warbles and squeaks that so unapologetically permeate her albums – they were all there. Particularly affecting was ‘Go Long’, the first of her two encores. There’s this part in the song where she sings the words ‘sugar lips’ with a pregnant pause in the middle. In the concert she uttered the word ‘lips’ with such tenderness and timidity that she barely made it to the ’s’, and it was lovely.
The show wasn’t perfect. Many of the longer songs were sped up, in what I assume was an attempt to keep the audience’s collective foot tapping. But for instrumentation as finely-wrought as Newsom’s, the notes began to bleed together and the harp’s syncopation became more difficult to discern.
Also, the levels were wrong throughout. The drums were too loud, and the sound desk appeared to be at a loss as to how to amplify the other instruments sufficiently, relative to the drums, whilst avoiding feedback.
But I’m being pedantic. It was a sensational show. The rawness, the feedback, the volume trouble – I suppose that’s the price you pay to witness your favourite songs being conjured out of nothing before your very eyes. I still think that there’s the potential for a bad gig to complicate your relationship with a beloved artist, but Newsom’s show was so accomplished that for all its imperfections, I left it with greater admiration for her and not less.
– Daniel Zwi