More photos soon to come from ALISSA ANDERSON
Thank you to (((folkYEAH))) for making this all possible.
It was hard not to contrast the intimate secret performance Joanna Newsom performed over the weekend on Saturday night at the Fernwood resort in Big Sur with the chance encounter I had watching her open for Sufjan Stevens in a small Los Angeles club nearly five years ago. Despite her music’s maturation over the years she has still not lost her spry and engaging quirky stage and musical presence that wins over all in attendance. The show nearly half a decade ago at the Troubadour was the perfect stage to watch her unleash her stage presence and music abilities as she sprang up on stage, hopped around and sang what sounded to be a traditional folk song that she had added such a unique twist to with her warbling demeanor, voice and harp playing that the entire audience quickly hushed for the entirety of her performance.
She may have shed her pre-raphaelite leaning attire for a strikingly contemporary couture pink dress on Saturday, but she has by no means lost an ounce of her original enrapturing sound that won over that entire audience years ago. The evening was made all the more exciting by the fact that most in attendance had no idea that she was even going to be there, much less that she was going to be playing for well over two hours trying out new material for her as yet unrecorded upcoming third studio album. A pair of sisters hiking through Big Sur and by chance huge fans of Joanna, singing her songs for much of the day were headed back to get dinner at the Fernwood Lodge, only to casually ask who was playing that night to reveal what they never could have expected to their complete elation.
The show was billed as Mariee Sioux and The Beatles’s, a pseudonym assumed by Joanna to shroud her identity from what surely would have fleshed out the crowd to a number much greater than the 50 in attendance. Mariee Sioux’s set was beautiful as usual and her voice has never sounded stronger. On a night with such excitement over the events that would proceed her she held her own and sang with confidence and strength throughout the entirety of her set. The end of her set was marked by the debut of a new song, Homeopathic, one of her strongest to date and added to the anticipation of her next album.
It was shortly after nine when Joanna took the stage. Wearing a leopard print shawl and stockings, with a bright pink highly intricate dress peeking out underneath, she was quite striking as she sat down beside the gilded harp set up on the side of the stage. Taking a seat at the harp proved to be a tease as she scooted over to the piano beside her and played a handful of songs each one somehow better than the next as she found her stride. It was with uncertain anticipation that I took to watching the performance before she began.
It’s always an interesting moment when one of your favorite artists takes to the stage to showcase their next evolution of musical progress. However, from the first pluck of her harp through the last note the performance was nothing short of rapturous. The makeup of her new songs combines the strong melodic presence of songs on the Milk-Eyed Mender with her continued instrumentational prowess and maturation beyond Y’s. It was unclear how many of the songs covered in the course of the two and a half hour set would ever be recorded, but there was never a sour note or “should be cut” moment to be heard. If anything a double album here would make perfect sense, and be one of the most enjoyable albums I’ve heard in ages.
The backing band’s arrangements were in perfect sync and sound with Joanna’s playing and added to the atmosphere of her lush and swirling landscape of songs that often stretched beyond twelve minutes. I was completely taken back by Newsom’s piano playing that was strong as can be yet oftentimes seemed effortless in a playful way that followed along with and led her vocal warblings. The makeup of the night seemed like about one third of the songs were piano based while the other two thirds being harp based. Some of the more surprising and great moments were when the electric guitar was brought front and center during the crescendo of one of the songs. It was also interesting to note throughout the set the way Joannas voice has evolved with her fluttering vocal inflections varying between the completely unrestrained and more smoothed over than ever before with the harmonies she preformed being some of the most diversely interesting she’s written. The multi-part harmonies she shared with her band mates (and self for that matter, what an amazing and capable voice) outpace anything she’s recorded yet by far.
The arrangements preformed along with Newsom’s songs also fleshed out the music beyond what she was capable of alone. The banjo, violin, drum and guitar accompaniment to the songs provided by her backing band added a lot to the sound. The encore of Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie concluded the night in the most beautiful way imaginable with its cooing chorus and wistful resolve punctuated by her rising and falling vocals. I’ll admit that while I enjoyed Y’s a lot, I favored Milk-Eyed Mendor a bit more, but after seeing her new material performed live I think it could easily be her strongest, most enjoyable album to date. I await with stubborn anticipation for these songs to be recorded and released because I really cannot wait to hear how this album turns out.
Joanna wore the same dress at the BAM. Photo credit
Joanna’s Harp minutes before she took the stage Photo by Chad Eaton.
The music was played on Saturday. Big Sur’s reliable afternoon sun played host to guitar plucking and river-gazing before putting its light on loan to a distant Western world. Mariee Sioux and a mystery band called “The Beatles’s” were scheduled to play in the Fernwood Lodge’s small, wood-paneled performance space: a lamp-lit area designed for, at most, a hundred feet. When I entered the hall in the dusty haze of afternoon, the light spilled across a curious scene: familiar faces milling amongst flannelled strangers talking weather and beer, myself ambling amongst them, and a golden harp inviting us all to silently speculate. Oddly enough, there were also butterflies stitched onto a powder-blue backdrop: big, beautiful insects cut from cloth, dangling large and lifeless. “The Beatles’s” mystery fluttered into the afternoon.
Later, the sun died and the sky turned speckled. The new suns above us, those points of historic navigation, blinked steadily like stars and lead us to the Lodge. My friends and I clung together down a dirt path, across a bridge, between fires, through tinny radio waves, and up a steep plank staircase that promised a haven of cigarette-talk and humanity. The music was starting and we were excited to stare.
Mariee Sioux and Joanna Newsom’s performances proved a celebration of people alive and loved, strings dormant and hopeful, and expectations dead, buried, and gone. How my hat was hung and shirttails tucked I don’t recall, but why my mind is now dancing daisy chains in loops around my eyebrows is as clear to me as it indescribable to you. Sorry. Everything evades detail. There are, however, faint impressions of songs and friends and faces unshaven and sounds unseen that appear, to me, aside reality; there are also bolder strokes of sound that are so real that I am reluctant to yarn them for fear of their undoing. It was a pretty picture I don’t often see or really care to lose.