Joanna Newsom / P.G. Six
Somerville Theatre; Somerville, MA
I'd never before seen a concert at the Somerville Theatre, so I was surprised to learn that it's the same Somerville Theatre I've caught a couple movies at, its big yellow marquee glowing in the dusk of the tree-lined, brick-and-leaf-paved Davis Square. It didn't occur to me until I entered that the choice of this venue was such an intentional one. Few of the burgundy seats had yet been occupied in the fully-lit theater when I was directed inside; I passed under the balcony and bent my neck to the high ceiling and the box seats that hung on either side of the tall, heavy, drawn open curtains. And between those curtains, surrounded at its feet by wires, microphones, guitars, and drums, stood Joanna's harp, large and inert. I thought of the beer-soaked places I'd seen Les Georges Leningrad, Art Brut, Portastatic, Ladytron in recent months, and saw that this venue was offering far more than max. occupancy.
As the rows filled up, members of the crowd staked out the most prized vantage points, their eyes often examining a digital camera's LCD. Before long, the lights dimmed and Pat Gubler of P.G. Six emerged from backstage. With black hair, black glasses, a black t-shirt, black jeans, and a young face, he picked up his acoustic guitar, stood with eyes half-closed and sang politely about a jealous murder and his subsequent trial, stepping back between lyrics to study his fingers as they ably picked at rapid arpeggios. Upon finishing, he introduced his small band of drummer, bassist, and guitarist, and the four of them comfortably strolled through a forgettable set of sometimes melancholic, sometimes explosive blues-folk-rock. Nobody was inconsolably displeased.
The lights came back up and the stage was re-set. The anticipation became even more palpable when the lights dimmed again and a spotlight shone down, illuminating the harp, as several wings of dust were borne slowly up the lone column of light. A recording of some pastoral woodwind teased us for what felt like half an hour until finally Joanna stepped briskly from the dark toward her instrument, to the release of our suspended applause. With a red smile and a "Thank you," she thoughtfully situated herself against the body of the harp and swung her hair from her cheek before plucking the familiar gallop of "Bridges and Balloons."
To watch her play is just mesmerizing. It's difficult to believe that such an unassuming presence really can be responsible for those piercing squeals and syrupy coos, the resonance of her lungs and her tongue and her sinuses more vivid than even the sight of her. Her head is cocked, her brow is knit, and her eyes are fixed on her fingers, with only an occasional and deliberate and precious glance into the crowd. Her wrists are buoyed by the tempo and her arms spring from the notes in wide arcs in the shape of a figure 8, or an ellipse. In more spirited passages, the alternating strokes of her arms rock her torso mechanically, like a marionette's. Few instruments afford this degree of expressiveness, and Joanna knows this instrument very, very well.
Next came "The Book of Right-On," after which she announced that, following a Scottish traditional, she would be joined by her band to perform the entirety of Ys, front to back, to the delight of the crowd, and coinciding with the day of its release. Four men and one woman completed the semi-circle of which Joanna was the center, supporting her with banjo, guitar, glockenspiel, drums, accordion, jaw harp, singing saw, and a Bulgarian stringed instrument resembling a mandolin. The bulk of Ys' string section was approximated by the accordion, to convincing effect, with the finer details tended to by the rest of the band, and almost every person singing at one point or another.
Given the length of each song, every break was met with extended applause while Joanna sipped water, flashed grins with a rehearsed sheepishness that we forgave, or explained "Sweaty hands" as she wiped her face and palms on her dress. Predictably the band rested during "Sawdust & Diamonds," the solo piece of the album, and though the rest of the time I found myself wishing on more than one occasion for them to keep it down (particularly the late appearance of the frequently off-key and unusually abrasive singing saw), the sound was well balanced and we couldn't have asked for a better translation of this record to a live setting.
The standing ovation persisted well after they had shuffled offstage, as we demanded Joanna unencumber herself and take the spotlight again. When she finally did, walking without pause back to her seat, the newly relaxed, almost celebratory mood of the room was marked by exaggerated yelps and whistles. Her belting out of the word "Sadie!" was met with wild cheers, the first time all night anyone dared interrupt her. She sang a song about her dog, then she sang another song about a peach and a plum and a pear, and we sat, spellbound.