It seems Toronto has been saving some of its tears for Joanna Newsom. It’s taken the California multi-instrumentalist five years to circle back to the city and in the time since, a lot has changed in the world. Her fan base remain ever devoted though, and her music – seemingly plucked from eras long gone and remembered solely in history books and dramatic TVO channel reenactments – remains an oddity to an increasingly electronic world. A pre-show visit to the nearby Medieval Times probably would have done wonders to set the mood for the evening.
Selling out the 1,250-seat Queen Elizabeth Theatre on a Monday night, many in the crowd were quick to draw-up memories of Newsom’s 2010 show at the Phoenix Concert Theatre. Even back then it was a venue ill-suited for an artist that favours the harp and piano. In fact, it was a venue with a roof that leaked all over the band while they performed, adding a definite sense of grunge to an otherwise pristine show. The Queen Elizabeth seemed much better suited for her more recent visit, touring 2015’s Divers – though I think we’re all still waiting for the day when she announces a Massey Hall show.
It’s also rather easy to see why the 2,750-person Massey Hall might be a little daunting for an artist like Newsom. Throw as much critical praise at her as you can (and let’s be clear: there’s a lot of it and it’s all well-deserved), but realize that when it comes to normal listening habits, Newsom isn’t a for-the-general-populace, stream-it-on-your-Spotify-on-a-whim sort of artist. There’s so much to what she does that passive listening doesn’t give it justice. It’s music that requires thought, introspection, and a rather highbrow appreciation. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say: that tends to be what happens when the harp is the main instrument.
It is, to be fair, a bit of a hard sell, but the scholarly, cerebral elements of her four-album body of work is a lot more easily understood when you see Newsom in concert. While everything she and her three-piece backing band present is so carefully arranged and symbiotic, it’s her voice that’s the hook.
More often than not, it starts off vulnerable – bringing the listener in with slight quivers that edge on imperfection. It’s not, of course. It’s all there for a reason and when her songs build up with winding, wordy narratives and the enormity of her instrumentals, it’s still Newsom’s voice that guides it on. It was this that made songs like “Monkey & Bear” and “Cosmia” (both from 2006’s Ys) and 2015’s “Leaving the City” so memorable and sweeping – the crowd sitting in silence for their lengthy durations, savouring the moments and appreciating her depth.
Newsom’s 14-song set ended with her alone on stage behind her harp, offering 2006’s “Sawdust & Diamonds” to a fan who had requested it the night before. Stretching into 10-minutes in length, it would also prove Newsom’s sole (but altogether humanizing) mistake of the night. About halfway through, she stopped playing and looked at the crowd – the lyrics lost to the tip of her tongue. She extended a hand to the crowd and it was then an audience member filled in the blank, shouting: “The slow lip of fire!” The crowd laughed, Newsom beamed, and she picked up the rest of the song without a pause.
As the lights came up and she gave us a final wave, people around me wiped away tears from their eyes. Five years is a long time to hold those in – so hopefully for their sake, Newsom’s promise to return sooner rather than later rings true. She does have a lot of responsibility in her hands: there’s not very many other places to turn to in popular music to get your harp fix nowadays. This is probably for good reason. Not very many people would be able to do it so well, so smartly, and with such charisma as Joanna Newsom.