Of the various ways to describe Joanna Newsom, “polarizing” comes up quite a bit. But even that’s an inadequate term to express the gulf between those who think the hipster darling sounds like Olive Oyl and those who think she sounds like a brilliant, earth-shatteringly talented Olive Oyl who will revolutionize music. For this reason, reviewing a live show is an exercise in preaching to the choir: Chances are, if you’ve gotten this far, you were at her show at the Fox Theater on Monday, sitting in rapt, reverent attention as Newsom delivered a show surprising and strong enough to satisfy even the hungriest fans.
Newsom first entered the pop-culture consciousness with 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, a soaring, utterly unique endeavor that drew influence from folk, classical, and the blues. It set her squeaky soprano, delicate harp, and cryptic lyrics against lush orchestration. Her voice — the source of so much of that polarization — was unlike anything anyone had heard in quite awhile, and the 22-year-old Mills graduate quickly became the undisputed high priestess of the emerging psych-folk movement, racking up critical accolades while stoking the kind of rabid fandom you rarely see from a demographic so practiced in ironic detachment. The adoration was enough, in fact, to fill a tribute book, Visions of Joanna Newsom, which had everyone from established academics to Dave Eggers waxing rhapsodic about her talents. February’s Have One on Me — an ambitious three-disc effort with most songs stretching far beyond the five-minute mark — earned her even more critical acclaim, besides furthering the obsessive fandom.
Indeed, it was no less than a minute after she’d walked onstage, dainty in blue and white, that Newsom received her first proclamation of love from the audience. And they didn’t stop coming even after she’d launched into her first song, a bracing rendition of “81,” after which she ran through a set well-balanced between songs old and new. Newsom referred on more than one occasion to her songs’ reduced arrangements — apparently touring with the 22 musicians she used on Have One on Me is a bit unwieldy — the result was more, rather than less. Her voice has mellowed and matured with time and lost some of the shrill harshness we saw on her first two albums. The songs feel cleaner without all that dense orchestration crowding out the vocals. With her comparatively modest five-piece backing band, “Soft as Chalk” was light and sparkling, and “Peach, Plum, Pear,” which normally borders on the frenetic, was a haunting ballad.
Newsom, classically trained in both the harp and the piano, is often praised for her musical ambidextrousness. It’s even more apparent on stage. She switched between the two instruments with fluid ease. Unlike other artists, whose live shows often amount to nothing more than a mindless run-through of their album hits, Newsom delivered new — and, at times, nearly unrecognizable — versions of her standbys. In addition to the striking re-arrangement of “Peach, Plum, Pear”, “Good Intentions Paving Company” felt like something between a Seventies-era song session and a hoedown. “Emily” was delivered as a duet.
With this crowd, an encore was a foregone conclusion. Newsom and opener Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes skipped back onstage for a surprisingly faithful rendition of Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow’s radio hit “Picture.” A four-person chorusline snapped their fingers in the background, like a hipster version of a Sixties doo-wop group. It was an odd choice from a woman who plays the harp and sprinkles her song lyrics with Shakespearean language — and whose fans, it’s safe to say, wouldn’t be caught dead listening to the likes of Kid Rock.
But it was, at the same time, the perfect show-ender for an artist who’s made her name by blending the contemporary with the classic. Newsom has been described in equal measure as an artifact of the self-consciously eccentric hipster aesthetic, and as a genuine — and genuinely talented — musician. You can’t quite tell whether or where the earnestness ends and the irony begins, but it doesn’t matter. When Newsom’s voice, as clear and as delicate as a soap bubble, comes through and meets Pecknold’s in ringing harmony, audience members sit still and silent as schoolchildren, utterly transfixed.