When Joanna Newsom first took the stage of the First Unitarian Church a little after ten on Friday night (Mar. 19), and the audience members immediately stopped talking amongst themselves to gawk at the virtuoso singer/songwriter. Newsom giggled at the spellbound audience and motioned for them to keep their eyes averted the stage, and began tuning the enormous brown harp sitting at center stage.
For 15 minutes, Newsom delicately listened to the strings while the packed crowd resumed its discussion of all things Joanna - their favorite songs on the new album, what the set list might consist of, and whether or not Newsom's boyfriend, "Saturday Night Live" star Andy Samberg, was in attendance. Throughout the geeky chatter, however, very few turned their eyes away from Newsom's tiny figure onstage.
With "Have One on Me," Newsom's stunning triple-album released last month, the folk artist has both reignited and expanded her unlikely cult following. An idiosyncratic voice, extensive vocabulary and lengthy, harp-driven songs may appear to be an unlikely recipe for success, but Newsom's masterful songwriting and dazzling arrangements have elevated her to indie stardom. On the first night of two back-to-back shows in Philadelphia, Newsom appeared comfortable in front of the adoring crowd, making lighthearted jokes and bringing out a birthday cake for one of her bandmates during the encore.
The First Unitarian Church provided the perfect pastoral backdrop for Newsom's sprawling tunes, with chandeliers lighting the stage and a hushed crowd watching from wooden pews. Backed by a five-piece band, Newsom played 10 songs in a little over an hour, including seven cuts from "Have One on Me." Tracks like "Easy" and "Soft as Chalk" sounded luxurious in a live setting, while the band's encore of "Baby Birch" rested upon Ryan Francesconi's snarling spurts of electric guitar.
"We're gonna do one that we've never done live yet," Newsom said before launching a rollicking version of "Good Intentions Paving Company". Newsom's vocals, which have become much more assured over the course of her three albums, gave the new songs a steady backbone. Most impressive, however, was Newsom's work on the harp: watching her fingers race through the strings and capture the gorgeous melodies within each track was a mesmerizing experience to witness.
As disappointing as it was that Newsom did not perform any songs from sophomore album "Ys," she did play three cuts from 2004 debut "The Milk-Eyed Mender," including fan favorites "Inflammatory Writ" and "Peach, Plum, Pear." For the latter track, Newsom altered the pacing and added a longer outro, resulting in a racing, emotional performance. After years of performing the songs and successfully tinkering with their layouts, Newsom was able to manipulate the boundaries of her older songs and craft something entirely refreshing. While the songs of "Have One on Me" are still sinking in, it will be fascinating to see how their live versions develop as Newsom continues her tour.
Here is Joanna Newsom's setlist:
"Have One On Me"
"The Book of Right On"
"Soft as Chalk"
"Good Intentions Paving Company"
"Peach, Plum, Pear"