Joanna Newsom at Carnegie Hall

>Few of us know anyone who plays the harp; basically none of us have been near enough to touch one. Part of the success of Joanna Newsom’s show last night at Carnegie Hall has to do with the kind of magic that an instrument like that creates. The posture in the player–this kind of open, holding, wide elbowed stance–combined with the mystery of the dozens (and from the balcony it seemed there could be hundreds) of strings, and finally the strange fact that its difficult to determine when the player is actually touching the harp, and when the sound is simply vibrating out of it. Only in close up, does any of it make any sense.

Less successful, and ultimately what made the evening feel a bit like a deflated exercise, was Newsom’s ambiguous relationship to her audience, and the awkward moments of harp-tuning, which left enough blank space that, upon Newsom’s suggestion, the audience began shouting out “questions.” “Brooklyn loves you,” someone said. This is interesting to me, because I have a feeling that most of the people in the audience had traveled from Brooklyn. Was he sending a collective message? Sent from the “better” borough? (There is a feeling among young hip people that Brooklyn rocks and Manhattan is square.) Was this person unconsciously indicating a kind of sentimental otherness?
This went on twice for not long, three or four minutes perhaps, but the energy lagged, and I wished that the band, or Newsom herself, had prepared some kind of other business for this moment–comedy, a story, talking, banter, anything. If anyone has seen Alison Krauss and Union Station perform, you will know that they are always tuning, but they have created many “bits” to do during this boring, and stagnant tuning sections, which bring the audience back into the show. Sure, it feels casual when they do it, never calculated, but AKUS would never, ever, allow their audience to set, or shift, the mood of those moments. Maybe this comes with having performed on stage together for 20 years–a luxury Newsom and her band does not have–a kind of seasoned, professional ease.
“Can I play Ryan’s banjo?” one audience member yelled, during this tuning/question section. “No,” said, Neal Morgan, on percussion. He then asked the audience to have a kind of meta-moment where we imagine her playing while she actually didn’t, and then he counted out 5 seconds of quiet, while we all listened. Ultimately, this is kind of asshole-ish, taking the, yes, stupid question “Can I play Ryan’s banjo” and then making the extra large point of showing the audience how stupid the question is, by extrapolating its stupidity by making us all engage in a similarly stupid interaction. More stupid does not counteract stupid.
Early in the evening, Newsom spoke of her nervousness, how it wasn’t until she got on stage for the sound check that she realized, okay, Carnegie Hall may be Carnegie Hall, but it’s just a room with the most incredible acoustics. Joanna, hello, it’s not just a room. Tell that to Sissieretta Jones, or Marian Anderson. Or Judy Garland. Or any of the thousands of amateur musicians who would kill to get on that stage. At the same time, however, her fans do not see her as the girl at the party: “What does it feel like to be a goddess?” screamed one fan from a few rows away from where I was sitting. Morgan responded: “Trick question, Joanna actually isn’t a goddess.” This was too clear.
I think she could be. Her music, as beautiful, ethereal, strange, unstructured, long, wandering, so different from anything else you hear–where was all that in the show? It was there in the songs, sure, but something else seemed missing. Even the long-winded biography printed in the playbill was reductionist, made to seem as if, ho hum, Joanna was playing harp in her basement and then, oh wow, people liked it, and thanks to a lot of illegal downloading and enough actual sales, now here she is.
Do young musicians in this new-folk scene refuse to take themselves that seriously? Does a kind of formal live presentation reduce your hipster street cred? These were the questions I wanted to ask.


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