Joanna Newsom Shines, Goes Long, Thanks Justin Bieber in Boulder
Robin Pecknold, whose Seattle alt-folk band Fleet Foxes has somewhat vanished since 2011’s Helplessness Blues peaked at number four on the Billboard chart, made for an interesting opening act last night at the Boulder Theater. In 2008, at the age of 22, Pecknold struck indie gold with haunting, creative tunes like “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” which was positively transporting when performed for a hushed, capacity crowd on Sunday night at the Boulder Theater. Juxtaposing that brilliant early-Foxes edge with somewhat cheesy new selections such as Fred Neil’s “The Dolphins” and Pecknold’s uneasy, withdrawn stage presence — the silence between songs was broken only by a man shouting, “I want to hang out with you tonight!” — it was hard not to wonder when the talented Pecknold will find another songwriting groove and rise again.
Conversely, the 34-year-old California chamber-folk artist Joanna Newsom, who headlined the 850-capacity theater, was a beam of light from the moment she appeared on stage smiling around 10 p.m. and received a roar of excited applause when she plucked the opening notes of “Bridges and Balloons.” A young woman next to me started sobbing and convulsing, like Beatles fans who famously freaked out on the set of The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
In front of a backdrop that resembled a foggy sky over the forests of far northern California, Newsom, a world-class harpist, held court for an hour and a half with her playful voice, cerebral and ambitious poetry and nimble musicianship. Her super-talented quintet of mega-instrumentalists, including a couple of her siblings, was on point from the start, delivering Newsom’s deep, intricate and challenging compositions with the kind of welcoming energy and mesmerizing dynamics it takes thousands of hours of practice to make look natural. Newsom’s band may be the most well-trained ensemble in the pop-music realm since Frank Zappa’s.
The Boulder audience was full of exhilaration and gratitude, shouting out thanks and compliments between every song. During a tuning pause after “Divers,” from Newsom’s 2015 album of the same name, the young woman next to me joined in, yelling, “You’re beautiful!” to Newsom’s amusement.
I jokingly whispered, “Tell her she’s talented, too,” and the young woman, after careful consideration, earnestly told me, “Yes, you yell that now,” before saying out loud, “Oh, she’s perfect!”
The inspiring effect Newsom’s densely composed music and inventively feminist lyrics have on young listeners, especially women, was clearly the tangible story of the evening, beyond the absolute awe one can experience simply watching Newsom play the harp, which she virtually possesses, like a master potter manipulating clay or a climber grasping a sheer cliff.
“Go Long,” which Newsom played during her encore, was particularly remarkable in its successful combination of vital, disparate ingredients: depth, humor, insight, grace, honesty, romance and lament, to name a few.
“Go Long” would be an impressive and arresting work of art if it were only a poem, speaking of “the loneliness of mighty men" from the perspective of a thoughtful, strong woman. Along with many of Newsom’s best, “Go Long” is the veritable antithesis of the modern love song; when delivered along with the precision and intimate language of her harp, it made the evening feel as regal as an opera and as personal as a poetry open-mike at Innisfree.
Personal Bias: The seated audience made up mostly of music lovers in their twenties and thirties was a rarity for Boulder, which for the last four years or so has enjoyed many concerts by national EDM, jam-band and rock acts at its two major venues but struggled to support original local music or shows by innovative artists such as Newsom. It was great — especially after getting knocked into by sloppy, intoxicated young people at Dr. Dog’s Boulder Theater show — to see so many familiar local faces hanging on every note and word both Pecknold and Newsom put forth last night. It was often so quiet that the sound of my pen while taking notes was almost intrusive.
By the Way: Newsom, though a more accomplished musician, is in many ways the modern extension of Joni Mitchell’s important musical and lyrical accomplishments of the '60s and '70s, combining expert musicianship with a sweet, welcoming voice and wise, liberating and profound poetry. My first thought upon entering the Boulder Theater for her concert was a question: What would a singularly interesting and important artist such as Newsom would have for sale at her merch table? Joanna Newsom koozies, bottle openers and beanies would seem out of place. “What about handcrafted Joanna Newsom potholders?” my date joked. A young man nearby quipped, “Maybe she has taxidermy for sale,” and a friend of ours suggested that Newsom could sell sand from California beaches. It turns out she only had T-shirts, albums and tote bags.
Random Detail: Early on in the show, Newsom informed the audience that she and her band had almost been stranded because of vehicle trouble. Luckily, she said, they were “rescued by the kind people of Justin Bieber, who gave us bus parts. In the final reckoning — just keep that in mind.” Later, when she was frustrated with a buzz from her harp, Newsom joked, “Bieber! They gave us bus parts, but at what cost?”