Live Review: Joanna Newsom, Mick Turner

20 January 2016 | 3:55 pm | Joel Lohman

"Hers is the voice of an angel in indie-music critic heaven."

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The hushed quiet as musicians make final adjustments to their instruments before a performance often feels awkward but, in the stately surrounds of Hamer Hall tonight, it feels respectful and entirely appropriate. Mick Turner's seasoned stoicism while his young drummer casts frequent, nervous glances his way makes for a thrilling dynamic. The pair, plus bassist, deliver half an hour of the unmistakably affecting instrumental music Turner and his main band Dirty Three are renowned for.

Opening with Bridges And Balloons from her debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, Joanna Newsom immediately entrances the audience with her magnificent harp; now furiously pulling, now gently caressing. Hers is the voice of an angel in indie-music critic heaven. The expanded musical palette Newsom exhibits on last year's Divers is on full display tonight as she dances between her harp and grand piano mid-song. The title track from that album, a metaphor-heavy meditation on love and death, spellbinds the audience for all of its seven magnificent minutes. Meanwhile, parts of Goose Eggs are almost funky, largely due to the crisp, dynamic drums that are her music's secret weapon, preventing it from ever edging into muzak territory. These incredibly precise-yet-deeply human compositions sit beautifully side-by-side with her older material. A vastly reworked Peach, Plum, Pear illustrates how much more sophisticated Newsom's arrangements have become since she recorded that song as a 22 year old. Have One On Me's playful coda is even more glorious live than on record. Tonight's setlist reflects Newsom's pride in Divers, her first album in five years. Long-time fans may pine for more from Ys or Have One On Me, but, with each composition so ornately arranged and carefully performed, it's hard to complain.

Newsom closes with the understated-then-epic Time, As A Symptom and the entire audience rises to its feet. She and her band leave the stage, but soon return for a truly sublime rendition of Baby Birch, the climax of which includes a rare instance of audience clapping that adds to a performance and proves the high concentration of musicians among her fans.

It seems profoundly unlikely that, in 2016, a 34-year-old harpist could sing wordy, ten-plus-minute folk tales to a music hall filled mostly with people younger than herself, but tonight the singular and extraordinary Newsom demonstrates why she occupies this unique place in contemporary music.

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