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Story and photos by Matt SchwenkeAfter more than a three-year gap since releasing her sophomore album Ys, Joanna Newsom kept her Pabst Theatre crowd on edge a bit longer than usual as more than an hour had passed since an under-the-weather Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes had ended his opening set. Later in the show, after entertaining a question from the audience, Newsom explained the wait was due to the fact she tunes her own harp and now goes through a lengthy vocal warm-up routine before she performs after developing vocal chord nodules in 2009.
Opening on harp with the new tune "Jackrabbits," from her new album Have One On Me, there was a new, albeit subtle, emphasis on her voice and lyrics, and like her new album, the live performance was worth the wait. With the often-criticized sharper edges of her voice softened by the vocal cord recovery and training, the new material is injected with a jazz and country tone and is more accessible than ever, especially when paired with less fanciful and more personal lyrics as in the poetic tale of "In California."
Another notable difference in the new material is Newsom's frequency behind the piano, as in the plodding and challenging turns of "Soft as Chalk." Older tunes such as "Inflammatory Writ" were revamped for the piano to much effect, while others like the catchy "Book of Right On" and the flurrying "Peach, Plum, Pear" were played close to how her faithful fan base remember. While the title track from the new album was the closest nod to earlier material lyrically and seemed to suffer disjointedly from the complicated arrangement, "Good Intentions Paving Company" mixed Vince Guaraldi-like piano with silky folk/country vocals - think Charlie Brown goes to Nashville - and presented the most fascinating view of her new direction.
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