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Story and photos by Matt SchwenkePerforming only a handful of shows across the U.S. with a 28-piece orchestra, indie harpist Joanna Newsom and company filled most of the stage at the Pabst and brought much of her 2006 release Ys to life with a somewhat Baroque backing. But while Newsom's instrument is classical by nature, the rhythms and style she employs are much more akin to that used in playing the kora, a harp-like, traditional African instrument. Add her Bjork-like/Appalachian vocal timbre and the sound is far from classical and all her own.
Lush arrangements of strings complimented Newsom in the first set, and gathered round Newsom's stage-anchoring instrument, bandmates on drums and guitar subtly added accents from either side in both sets. With the orchestra, "Cosmia" swelled and collapsed around slightly smoky vocals from Newsom and "Emily" presented interesting phrasing around Newsom's dynamic vocal range. But while "Sawdust and Diamonds" rose to grand heights, the orchestra seemed uncomfortable with the non-classical 4/3 timing and Newsom's Tori Amos-like bursts of intensity that marginally pulled and pushed the rhythm.
Seemingly child-like in voice upon first listen, Newsom's odd tone and side-of-mouth delivery often broke into a range of textures and tones that, along with her daydream-like prose and lengthy tunes, created vivid soundscapes with or without the orchestra-- most notably without the orchestra on "The Book of Right On" and "Only Skin." And without any help at all, Newsom commanded the crowd's attention with a solo performance of a new, untitled-as-of-yet tune that wavered fancifully upon Newsom's falsettos. From 31 down to one, Newsom's music and voice was compelling at each level of accompaniment.
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