Thursday, October 05, 2006

Joanna Newsom, Toronto October 4, 2006: Concert review

Last night I attended one of the most captivating and unique concerts I have ever seen. Yesterday at Toronto’s Mod Club Joanna Newsom, a 24-year-old harp-playing pixie from California, made her Toronto concert debut.

I discovered Newsom a couple of years ago when she released her debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender. She plays a fairly classical style of harp but implements her own percussive plucking technique, often adding majestic sweeps and dramatic chord changes. Her singing voice is quite striking and distinctive – a very childlike voice with hints of Bjork and reminiscent of actress Holly Hunter. Her vocal style, along with her brilliantly whimsical and quirky poetic lyrics, gives her music a kind of purity and innocence.

Musically, she has situated herself in the neo-folk/indie-rock/adult alternative camp, often touring with the likes of Cat Power, Neko Case, and Devendra Banhart. But that’s where the comparisons stop. When she hits the stage there is no back-up band; it’s just Joanna and her harp. And yesterday at the Mod Club, where I’m used to seeing bands rock out, it was very strange to see this sort of set-up.

Aside from the minimalist arrangement, the first thing that struck me when Joanna hit the stage was her astonishing beauty and presence. Joanna Newsom is one seriously attractive young lady. She wore a red dress with black stockings and her long blonde hair flowed down her back. As she sat down and started to position herself, she nervously noted how the microphone set-up had changed since the sound-check. At this point, the audience – which filled the Mod Club to overflowing – was deathly silent in anticipation. I don't think I was the only one in attendance who was eager to see what Newsom would be like live.

And then she started playing and singing. It took the sound technician a few moments to adjust, the acoustics being dramatically different from a few moments before when opening act Ohbijou was playing. But for whatever reason, the mix was never perfect (the vocals had a tinny, tunnel-like quality); Newsom’s delicate and soft-spoken performance demanded silence from the audience so that they could hear all the nuances. Her graceful and intricate hand movements were mesmerizing, the audience completely captivated. When her first song, "Bridges and Balloons," was complete the audience exploded into applause. This went on throughout the evening, the audience offering their appreciation for an inordinate length of time following the completion of each piece.

During “The Book of Right-On” the lights went down low and a blue light lit up from behind. It made for an excellent effect as her hands brushed back and forth along the strings. When she finished, however, she asked that no saturated light be used because it made her strings appear invisible to her.

She completely enthralled the audience with not just her virtuosic abilities, but with her charm and grace as well. Soon into the concert I realized that this was not a suitable venue for someone like Joanna Newsom. The bar along the side of the Mod Club was busy with activity, and the incessant clinking of beer bottles and the slamming of fridge doors often competed with Newsom on stage. Half-way during the concert a rock band began playing in the basement on the second stage; the low end of the drums and bass were extremely distracting. And of course, there always has to be a pair of idiots who make inappropriate and rude remarks during the show.

No, Joanna shouldn’t be playing at the Mod Club. Next time around, I fully expect to see her perform at a venue like Roy Thomson Hall or the Hummingbird Centre. Given the quality of her new material and the enthusiasm of her fans, this is all but assured.

Click here for a slide-show of images I took at the show.

Click below to see Joanna perform "The Book of Right-On."

And here's Joanna's finale:

1 comment:

Kaifler said...

Hey, I was at the Joanna Newsom concert that night too and it was absolutely AMAZING! (except for that random guy who kept screaming out stupid comments). But either way I totally agree that should be at a bigger and better venue the next time she comes back!

Thanks for posting up this pics and vids!