I've been meaning to write a few words on the Joanna Newsom show with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra two weeks ago, but between color week and the holiday weekend it slipped through the cracks. Since it was such an amazing show, though, I wanted to be sure to show it some attention.
I walked in to the Symphony Center last Friday to learn I was actually attending the indie rock prom. May I just say, indie kids trying to dress up is just awkward. Still, it's adorable that they tried, recognizing this was not a typical venue. Meanwhile, I've never been to the CSO before, and it's much different than whatI was expecting (i.e., a large theater)- it's relatively small and there is no real lighting, so it's house lights at all times.
A smaller, strings-only portion of the CSO came out to tune before the lovely Joanna (cue: "we love you Joanna" choruses here, which carried on throughout the night) and her 3 bandmates made their way on stage. Unexpectedly, we learned that multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi not only arranged the original orchestration for the CSO, but conducted them, while violinist Lila Sklar and drummer Neal Morgan took their places on either side of Joanna for the occasional violin solo or bass drum action. That Joanna has some incredibly well-rounded friends.
As expected, Joanna took the orchestra straight through Ys, and as expected, it was absolutely lovely. Even with the backing of an orchestra, Joanna and her harp are still the heart and soul of the music; "Sawdust and Diamonds" is the only solo piece on the album, and even though the orchestra just sat and watched her, it was still my favorite song of the night. (Sitting and listening to the lyrics more carefully, I also realized it's a song about her harp.) Watching her hands on the harp is unreal. Her voice also seems like it's matured since the days of The Milk-Eyed Mender; the squeaks still appear here and there (though not at the beginning of "Only Skin"), but more and more the weirdness seems to fall away and it's just plain beautiful.
After wrapping up with the haunting "Cosmia", the band and orchestra left the stage for a 20 minute intermission before Joanna returned with her band to treat us to some old and new songs. It was interesting seeing how she adapted songs from the Milk-Eyed Mender, which were recorded solo, to a full band; some interpretations worked well and added new life to the songs (a country-fied version of "Inflammatory Wit" with Joanna at the piano, a bold rendition of "Peach, Plum, Pear"), while others felt like the additional instrumentation was a bit forced ("Bridges and Balloons"). Songs like "Colleen" and a reworked "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie," which were recorded with the band for the Ys Street Band EP, obviously worked well with the band.
Still, I can't help but feel that Joanna is at her best when she's on her own, because there's nothing to distract from her unbelievable harp playing. Eventually during the encore the band left Joanna alone to treat us to her ode to her dog, "Sadie", before wrapping up with a brand new tune that was, dare I say, absolutely stunning.
I've now seen Joanna solo (at the old Bottom Lounge, if you can believe it), playing through Ys with a band (Logan Square Auditorium), and now with a small orchestra. What could she possibly treat me to next?