I wandered through the eerily deserted campus of Greensboro College. First I saw a cloud of cigarette smoke above a hedge, and then a thatch of brightly colored vintage coats against an austere façade-- the Gail Brower Huggins Performance Center. The 787-seat auditorium received a $4-million renovation in 1998 and remained respectably grand: From the balcony, the orchestra seating swept down below a huge chandelier to a stage where Sir Richard Bishop played droning, elaborate guitar runs as I arrived. The hall tacitly demanded decorum; it looked more accustomed to accommodating tenured jazz mavens than, say, the girl in a black bodysuit and a hot pink bra, or the guy I had the misfortune to sit beside, who spent half of the set singing tonelessly along with Newsom and the other half hyperactively joggling his knee against mine.
These juxtapositions are a product of Newsom's ambiguous relationship to the very indie culture that adores her. After seeing her perform, it's clear that she is (and you'll forgive me the lofty classical image; this is a Joanna Newsom review) a sort of Prometheus, bringing an elite musical tradition down from the mountain and into the lowlands of indie rock, where attitude-not-training is the rule, and a certain spiritual posture is more important that traditional musicianship. She's been punished accordingly by the gods (in this extended metaphor, a cynical press) for her efforts to cross that divide.
This disconnect is understandable-- Newsom is a classicist who's immersed herself in indie culture, where context is everything. We judge classical musicians by the skill of their compositions; we judge indie musicians by their total image, and so Newsom's harshest critics brand her a charlatan by indie standards of image-- fidelity and superficial humility that have very little to do with what kind of musician she actually is. Never mind that her music, while conceptually and compositionally elaborate, doesn't rely on outsider ideology to ratify it. Never mind that she studied composition at an elite institution. Never mind that she has the regal posture and charming mien of the classical musician, with a subtle, professional voice. She's on an indie label, and she knows Will Oldham. If Phillip Glass signed to Drag City, people would immediately start arguing over how much he "means" his music. Newsom's idiom isn't inherently superior to indie, but it is distinct from it, and to judge her by indie standards is a failure of interpretation. This is a culture that has lauded Cat Power for the sincerity of her half-performances. By way of contrast, Newsom's set felt polished and complete-- she played Ys in its entirety with her touring band, book-ended by solo performances of Milk-Eyed Mender favorites.
Newsom took the stage, in a glossy red dress, to thunderous applause. "She's so cute!" people squealed. She told a story about playing a "sleepy show" in D.C. the previous night, vowed that tonight would be different, then sat down at her harp and played a pitch-perfect rendition of "Bridges and Balloons". From afar, Newsom's fingers flitting about the massive instrument looked like the rapid untangling of something hopelessly knotted; in tandem with singing, it appeared basically impossible. She squeaked like a mouse at the start of certain lines, just like on the recordings. By halfway through "Emily", it was apparent to me that I liked this incarnation of the songs better than the one on Ys. Van Dyke Parks' arrangements are melodically brilliant, but the studio orchestration feels antic at times. Condensed for accordion, guitar, banjo, and tambura, the live arrangements sounded more retiring and mellow, with a darkly romantic flavor. A barefooted drummer played epic sweeps with soft mallets and sang winsome harmonies, "Monkey and Bear" built to a mean crescendo, and a singing saw solo brought "Cosmia" to an enchanting close. During the first of two standing ovations-- one before the three solo encores from Milk-Eyed Mender, one after-- I understood that indie music has longed for someone like Joanna Newsom, who brings the poise and splendor of classical music, divested of refrain-from-crinkling-your-toffee-wrappers snobbery, to an audience that by now might have had to mope through a couple too many mediocre performances in their ongoing search for the authentic.