Joanna Newsom at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (1 Mar ’16)

My second trip to the Phil of the year so far, with three more already scheduled in, this time for Californian harpist and all-round oddball Joanna Newsom.



I was organised enough to make it to the venue shortly before the support act came on, walking in to some glorious Brian Eno, as the DJ was spinning Another Green World, reaching the end of side one with the beautiful I’ll Come Running followed by the instrumental title track, later used as the title theme for BBC2’s Arena.

What made hearing this even better was that I was actually wearing my green t-shirt that features the cover of the very same album – spooky!

On came Robin Pecknold of harmony-drenched indie folkies Fleet Foxes, who sat patiently while some technical issues were resolved before launching into a series of delicate acoustic songs that were new to me.


Robin Pecknold

Unfortunately, most of the new numbers were rather underwhelming, although perhaps they would sound better with fuller instrumentation, or of course greater familiarity. The set got slowly more upbeat, although the last new song slowed things right down again, but seemed a little short of lyrics.

He was a very engaging presence, singing the praises of both the headline act (“I think we can all agree she’s the best songwriter of our time”) and the city (“This is such a beautiful city. I spent the whole day walking around”).

He ended with two Fleet Foxes songs that unsurprisingly generated the greatest appreciation from the crowd. Tiger Mountain Peasant Song from the eponymous debut full-lengther from 2008 was followed by Montezuma from 2011’s Helplessness Blues.

I sped over the road for a pint at the Philharmonic pub, returning in time to hear some nicely subtle acoustic guitar instrumentals as the interval music.

Joanna and band emerged in a wide range of slightly crazy outfits. She was backed by her brother Pete on drums, Veronique Serret and Mirabai Peart on violin, and Ryan Francesconi on guitar, although all of them also played multiple other instruments.


Ryan Francesconi, Veronique Serret and Mirabai Peart

She is quite a hard act to categorise – there’s not many harp-focused acts I go to see live, or even ones that feature a grand piano or such a wide range of stringed and other instruments. The only other names that spring to mind as a (fairly poor) comparison are Björk, maybe partly due to their similarly occasionally childlike vocals and overall kookiness, and short-lived folk singer Judee Sill.

Her influences apparently include the likes of 60’s left-field folkie Karen Dalton, punk poet Patti Smith and smoky jazz icon Billie Holiday, to give a little more of the flavour of her sound.

She started right at the beginning, with Bridges And Balloons, the opening track off 2004’s debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender. The set drew from all four of her albums (one of which is a triple), although it was weighted towards the more recent ones. Joanna moved between the harp and a Steinway grand piano.

Monkey & Bear from 2006’s sophomore release Ys was an early highlight, a typically winding story that starts out like a nursery rhyme before the monkey effectively pimps out the bear. Then came the swooning and swooping In California from 2010’s triple album Have One On Me. From this point on the set generally became drummier.

JoannaNewsom1Following the lovely Leaving The City from last year’s Divers, there was a brief interlude while she tuned her harp, during which she asked the audience for any questions. These included “is the drummer your brother?” (Yes), “what’s your favourite Nabokov book?” (Lolita), and “what song is your dress inspired by?”

The title track of her triple album proved a real drumming tour de force, while Francesconi showed off his plucking skills on subsequent numbers, including mandolin and banjo. After the driving Time, As A Symptom from Divers, she stated her happiness at returning to Liverpool for the first time in five years before closing with Good Intentions Paving Company from Have One On Me.

After a brief break, Joanna and band returned for Cosmia off Ys, before the evening ended with another track from the triple album, Baby Birch, that featured some great spooky guitar.

The whole evening had been as jazzy as I like my music to get, and perhaps one to be admired more than loved, but I fully understand why some people would fall heavily under the music’s spell. The songs are typically very long, with elliptical, complex lyrics that often defy easy comprehension, with the tunes rarely passing the legendary ‘old grey whistle test’.

Tonight’s t-shirt

As I have mentioned, I was in my green Eno tee. The only band t-shirt I noticed on the night was the rather incongruous De La Soul.

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Here is very little of the music from the night on Spotify, as Joanna is very anti-Spotify:



One response to “Joanna Newsom at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (1 Mar ’16)

  1. Pingback: 2016 in review | undilutable slang truth·

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