Have One On Joanna Newsom At The Fox
What’s new with Joanna Newsom? A hotly anticipated show, certainly, with a full-blown band at the Fox Theater on Aug. 2. But what else has changed since I first met Joanna Newsom, back in 2003?
Back then she was playing with then-boyfriend Noah Georgeson -- the prettying keyboard-pounding support in his Strokes-y new-rock combo the Pleased. Even then, laughing with the boys over coffee and tea at a Duboce Triangle cafe, she drew your attention: Newsom and Georgeson had just finished recording her solo debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, in their Castro digs, and she was thrilled that Drag City had agreed to release it -- and equally abashed to confess that she was voting for her second cousin Gavin Newsom’s popular rival, Matt Gonzalez, in that year’s SF mayoral election. “My grandma won’t have me over for dinner if I actually make negative statements about him in the newspaper,” she fretted at the time, so sweetly you couldn’t possibly imagine her getting genuinely excommunicated from her extended Irish Catholic clan.
The next time I saw Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender had turned the Nevada City native into an indie star, and she was all easy-going confidence and grace, traipsing through Golden Gate Park, from Conservatory of Flowers to the aptly named Portals of Memory -- petite, birdlike, and as sexy as a ‘70s-era rock star in high-heeled fringe suede boots tucked into skin-tight jeans, a floppy brimmed hat shading her honey-hued bangs. Casting her thoughts back to her Mills College audition for imposing avant-rock figure Fred Frith and her switch from composition to creative writing, she already seemed like a rare creature in the talent-rich SF music scene: gorgeous, stylish, smart, musically accomplished, and armed with the one of the most unusual instruments in rock: the harp.
So if 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender boasted the first blush of Newsom’s music expression and 2006’s Ys (Drag City) saw her stretching her songs into far-from-pop mediations as long as 16 minutes, then Have One on Me, this year’s sprawling, three-disc offering, reads as an act of generosity -- one that tilts any associations with the word “precious” away from triteness and tumbling into the realm of treasure. Expansive and languorous in its breadth and depth, it’s a jewel of a recording, with much in common with the literary-minded, artistically ambidextrous, and musically ambitious albums of Kate Bush, while both Bessie Smith and Judee Sill would appreciate Newsom’s nod to the blues.
Newsom’s voice changed during the albums’ recording -- it matured and altered by way of an operation for nodes on her vocal chords -- and perhaps it’s all for the better. Now it winds and turns with rare fluidity and jazzy playfulness on, say, the title track, “Good Intentions Paving Company,” and “Esme.” Newsom sounds like neither a very young girl nor a witchy crone now. Here she’s a woman, beckoning you from the settee on the cover and entreating you to drink in her songs: she’s a Theda Bara-esque seductress in a Thomas de Quincey opium dream, playing off the recent past’s new-hippie aesthetics, which spun off the wildly creative, pleasure-seeking ‘60s, itself obsessed with the romance of the pre-Raphaelites, the latter harking back to Medieval art and motifs. A thoughtful post-modernist, Newsom is channeling the past several times removed -- much as she did for Ys, holding court amid the symbolism-crammed album art -- and, as always, she’s fully conscious of her predecessors.
Yet few of those long-ago chanteuses likely had the chance to realize a vision as rich and musically opulent as Have One on Me’s. Strings and brass color tunes such as “Autumn” ever so delicately, in shades reminiscent of Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, while the album finale “Does Not Suffice” strips it all back to piano and the bare-faced beauty of a hymn. The folk songs of the past have been replaced by the elemental earthiness of the blues, and while “You and Me, Bess” easily reference predecessors like Bessie Smith, that track and the opener, “Easy,” cue nothing more or less than that American folk opera classic, Porgy and Bess. What’s new? Better still, the old has been re-envisioned. Shot through with yearning, charged symbolism, nature’s bounty, and a pageant of vividly colorful characters, Have One on Me is all set for its close-up -- or, rather, its libretto.
Joanna Newsom performs Monday, Aug. 2, 8 p.m., at Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. $32. Robin Pecknold opens. www.apeconcerts.com