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Joanna Newsom Impresses at Bates Recital Hall





Joanna Newsom Impresses at Bates Recital Hall

 

With her most recent album, Divers (2015), almost five years old at this point, it was unclear what exactly Joanna Newsom would be performing the first night of her 2020 Austin concerts. Her last Austin performance in 2016 was at the Moody Theater in full promotion of that record. With a full backing band and almost half the set coming from Divers, this show was much different: a solo tour, hilariously titled The Strings/Keys Incident. Tucked into UT’s Bates Recital Hall, the audience took their seats in the intimate space. A three story organ loomed over the stage with nothing but a harp, a piano, and a multi-colored tapestry to set the scene. This venue is usually meant for student performers, but a few seconds into her first song it was clear a true master of her craft had taken the stage. 


Opening with “Bridges and Balloons” off of her 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, her labyrinthine string plucking seemed to transport the audience away to a safer, simpler place. We were teary-eyed before the song was even finished. She continued to parade through her albums flowing to “Emily” off Ys, then moving to the piano for “The Things I Say” from Divers and Have One On Me’s “In California.” Just as the first four songs had seamlessly drifted through her entire discography, the whole set was consistently balanced between all of her releases. Even without any percussion, her syncopated playing felt oftentimes quite groovy allowing some listeners to bob their heads to the beat, while others a-rhythmically swayed in a trance. Although each song in the almost two hour performance was truly moving, a personal highlight was “Monkey & Bear.” 


One would think someone with such ethereal music would be intangibly eccentric, like Björk or Prince, but she seemed so pleasant and normal. Walking onto stage drinking tea, waving to a friend in the crowd, and genuinely funny and polite crowd banter grounded her performance in a way that transcended labels such as “freak folk” or “baroque pop.” Even though it’s so early in the year, I can not imagine a more touching or memorable musical experience topping this one.  

 

- Hayden Steckel

Published: January 19, 2020 |

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