Joanna Newsom at Pabst Theater
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Sympathies go out to anyone that chose to have their first date at Friday’s Joanna Newsom concert at the Pabst Theater. By the time the eccentric singer-songwriter took the stage, nearly an hour had passed after the opening set by Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, which surely exhausted most if not all of the night’s decent conversation material. When Newsom finally did emerge, she informed the crowd that she was struggling both with nodes on her vocal chords and a difficult-to-tune harp. (Surprisingly, the ol’ “difficult-to-tune harp” excuse rarely gets broken out at AC/DC concerts.)
At least she proved to be worth the wait, as Newsom rewarded the patient Pabst crowd with a nearly flawless 90-minute performance. Volleying between the harp and piano, Newsom performed 11 songs, many of which were stripped-down versions of tracks from the new, brilliantly self-indulgent triple-album set Have One On Me. Opening with the understated “Jack Rabbits (Love You Again)”, she displayed a maturity in her vocals that has been growing with each new album. While lengthier numbers such as “In California” and “Good Intentions Paving Company,” had some minor tempo issues, Newsom and her versatile five-piece band were frequently stunning, coaxing every last bit of batshit beauty out of exceedingly unwieldy material.
Newsom’s music has always been a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, so it was a little strange at times to see how uniformly warm these occasionally grating, polarizing songs were received. Older tunes such as “Inflammatory Writ” and “The Book Of Right On” were even met with enthusiastic clapping reminiscent of Eagles fans hearing “Hotel California.”
Newsom’s charm and sense of humor between songs lent a sense of spontaneity and kept the mood of the evening light and relatively free on quirky indie preciousness. Still, a question and answer session with the back-up band was pretty cringe-worthy, with a handful of cheeky audience members attempting to one up each other in hilarity. But overall the evening was thoroughly enjoyable, and hopefully gave those poor souls on first dates plenty to talk about on the drive home.