Joanna Newsom Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Toronto ON, December 14
Published Dec 15, 2015The only reason I'm writing this review with words instead of trying to capture the spirit of the show by submitting a carved, cedar box that, when opened, releases a solid beam of light followed by a flurry of owlet moths, is that this makes for better SEO.
In the leadup to the show, the lobby of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (a venue in which sloping rows of seats are referred to as a balcony, which is, incidentally, suitable for a performer known for crafting ornate narratives) filled up with girls in vintage dresses, dark lipstick and frizzy hair, standing stiffly while they quietly read their poetry books. It's the type of audience that Newsom attracts: bookish and introverted, sure, but in a conspicuous, aesthetically charged way. This isn't shade: it all served to enhance the world-building of the evening. I watched as new friendships formed in the line to the washroom, or in the tight aisles between seats as young women gushed over each other's outfits or compared notes on which song from Newsom's latest album, Divers, was their favourite. The mood was reprieve from the cold, drizzly Toronto night to a place where, for an evening, people believed in the existence of magick (spelled with a k).
From the backdrop of the stage hung a giant print by Kim Keever, whose ethereal photographs of underwater miniatures serve as the cover and artwork for Divers. Newsom came out to polite but thunderous applause, smiling broadly as she took her seat behind her imposing and iconic harp. She was joined by Pete Newsom on drums, violinist and vocalist Mirabai Peart, and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi (the latter provided arrangements for Newsom's 2010 album Have One On Me).
She opened with "Bridges and Balloons," from Newsom's humble 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. In the 11 years since she recorded it, her voice has grown richer and her range broader, though she performed this song with a certain breathiness. With the addition of a backing band (which wasn't present on record), the song took on a new life, all grown up from its gawky origins to something befitting of the luxe concert hall.
What followed was a survey of Newsom's four albums. There was some banter in between songs, as Newsom greeted the audience, introduced her band and thanked them for coming out. She was gracious but stiff during these moments, becoming animated only while seated with a harp between her knees or on a piano bench. She nimbly switched between instruments, sometimes several times during one of her sprawling songs, such "Anecdotes" when she seamlessly moved from harp to piano and back again. Newsom throws her whole body into each note, playing with a pitch perfect ferocity that contrasts with her shy demeanour.
"You're wonderful and you deserve to feel wonderful!" shouted a male audience member between songs. The crowd was rapt while she played, saving their applause till the end, save for when they recognized the opening chords for fan favourites like "Sapokanikan" and "Peach, Plum, Pear" (another gussied up early hit). When she finished her final song, the escalating "Time, as a Symptom of Love" (also the closer for Divers) she was met with an immediate standing ovation, a packed room of devoted attendees who had their best hopes realized.
Newsom came out alone for the encore to perform "Sawdust and Diamonds" off her 2006 album, Ys. There was a moment halfway through when she fumbled, seeming to forget the lyrics. She looked out expectantly to the audience where a fan in the front shouted out the next line ("a cord or two — which you chop, and you stack in your barrow"). She laughed and nodded appreciatively before quickly resuming the song. It's Joanna Newsom's world, we're all just living in it.