The setlist for Joanna Newsom’s Wednesday night concert at Charlottesville, Virginia’s Jefferson Theater belied a certain simplicity. It listed 10 songs, plus one encore, with brief titles like “In California,” “Soft as Chalk,” “Monkey and Bear,” and, perhaps most suggestively, “Easy.” Those unfamiliar with her work might have imagined her as an artist who has boiled her message down to such succinct phrases. But, once Newsom positioned herself at her towering harp and began letting a myriad of notes fall from her fingers, they would have quickly discovered a different reality.
That reality is one in which Newsom is an undeniable virtuoso and far from a minimalist. Wednesday’s set featured seven songs from her latest and most ambitious release, the triple-album Have One on Me. Tunes ranged from the steady but colorful chug of “Good Intentions Paving Company” to the sprawling swirl of the album’s 11-minute title track. Newsom’s ensemble included multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi and drummer Neal Morgan, who both contributed to “Have On on Me.” Along with three others, they offered a perfect compliment to Newsom’s polyrhythmic plucking and endlessly nuanced singing. Francesconi switched out instruments — often multiple times in one song — to recreate the album’s ever-changing orchestration, and Morgan hit his drums sparingly and deliberately, riding on the music’s momentum rather than propelling it himself.
While the new songs breathed with the same unreserved spirit of the album, the older ones revealed how much Newsom has changed since Milk-Eyed Mender, her 2004 debut. She pulled out three tunes from that album, “Inflammatory Writ,” “The Book of Right-On,” and “Peach, Plum, Pear,” as well as “Monkey and Bear” from 2006’s Ys. All moved at a more brisk and assured pace than their recorded counterparts, and Newsom’s voice, which changed following a bout with vocal chord nodules, took on a much smoother, sensual tone.
Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen opened the show as satirical drum instructor Jens Hannemann and also returned the later to play percussion on “Good Intentions.” As the night came to a close, it felt cut short despite Newsom’s lengthy set. That feeling is a testament to her rare ability to charm you into forgetting that the minutes are flying by. Commanding such enrapt attention is less and less common in the days of Twitpics and 140-character reviews, but Joanna Newsom is, after all, anything but common.