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:: Joanna Newsom ::
01 November 2004 / Matt & Phreds / Manchester
By Dave Himelfield

No one quite prepared for the storm tonight. Tables and chairs are still in place in the designated dancing area and a dense crowd piles up behind before spilling into the gaps and compressing themselves into the corners. Some younger devotees sit cross-legged directly in front of the stage as if they’re about to be read a story by a children’s entertainer. And on comes Newsom as fragile, childlike and perplexing as her work. Fittingly enough she begins a cappella with what sound’s like a children’s clapping song spurring the whole multitude into action.

It’s obvious that Newsom’s appeal partly centres on its hark back nature to a fantasy childhood where you were never refused that second ice cream or sick as result of being allowed. Indeed Newsom flutters her eyes towards the ceiling in juvenile embarrassment at each hearty applause. This could be the musical documentation of Sylvanian Families or Winnie the Pooh. A world filled with stories about cockles, canaries and plums to name but a few. It’s all enough to make the hardest of hearts quake and yearn. And all set to that famed harp, so huge in comparison to Newsom’s petit build that she looks in mortal danger of being squashed by it. Having picked up (not literally one hopes!) the instrument in her childhood she plays it like a true virtuoso beset with hair-raising runs. But this isn’t the novelty of finding an alternative to the guitar. Each piece shimmers with the kind of quirkiness you’d expect from someone of such isolated individuality. With bird like grace her tiny hands spread over the instrument ringing the strangest mix or classical, traditional and weird-ass indie. This is the sound of the woodlands that only elves and possibly Mickey Mouse during his ‘Fantasia’ stint ever discovered.

Similarly her voice possesses a strange avian quality somewhere between a dulcet caw, a folk drawl and that associated with young children. To those of cynical disposition it may comes across as mildly cretinous. To those of a less rigid mindset it is entrancing and vitalising not to mention a welcome break from dogged transatlantic convention. Moreover, this is not wilful naivety. There are clear escapist tones but painted with mature, slanted imagery. Tales of dogs and crustaceans are delivered with such empathy that you momentarily feel like you may have been one in a previous life. Often too there’s a serious message inside. As Newsom is eager to point out, her B-side to current single ‘The Sprout and the Bean’ deals with the human selfishness of deferring crucial pressing decisions and ‘En Gallop’ counters rose-tinted retrospection. Indeed “never get so attached to a poem/you forget truth that lacks lyricism”.

Always indicative of great set, it’s over seemingly just as it began. As she slips away through the throng head converse to confirm what they actually just saw and that was an artist so special and thoroughly enchanting that everything else seems to fade into triviality. So the world is a cold place, but tonight feels like a warm enclave above it where we stare down philosophically and celebrate it; more so, the power of our imagination.

Joanna Newsom

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