February 2, 2008

Joanna Newsom at BAM

When I listen to live music, it tends to put me in a sad/contemplative/inspring mood all at the same time, wherein I reflect on the great talent before me, how I'll never be that good, how I should play more, how I should go play right now. This has only gotten worse since graduating and falling away from music. In college, I was a music major and was always listening to or making music. Now, ironically, I work for a performing arts institution, but don't have music in my life. I am afraid to practice in my home because my downstairs neighbors complain. I feel totally uninspired to write songs. I used to think, I'll always have my love for music, I will always care more about that than anything else. And now, it's fallen to the background. I don't know how to fix it. Well, I joined a choir recently, so that's a start.

And there are still those occasional transcendental moments. Notably Sufjan Stevens at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) in November, and Joanna Newsom at BAM last Friday night. Joanna Newsom can be classified as a freak-folk singer-songwriter-harpist with a childlike voice. On Friday night, she performed with a small orchestra comprised of members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic for her first set. The orchestra sounded terrifically like the arrangements in her orchestral album Ys. But it was interesting to note how much of a difference the live percussion made - its prominence, dull or sharp at times, altered the entire color or timbre of the whole ensemble, giving it a rougher, live feel, and occasionally drowning out the strings.

For the second half, she performed just with her band - drums, banjo, violin/fiddle. It was really great to hear old songs, that I knew in my mind as just her voice and tingling harp, reworked with more country/bluegrass/Appalachia flair. It underscored for me that live concerts are best when I can hear new and different versions or songs, to get more out of a live concert than I would just listening to an album for the millionth time in my own home.

During the concert, I was hit with the sudden memory of when I first heard Joanna Newsom. My college boyfriend gave me Joanna Newsom's first album for Christmas three years ago. That was the winter he gave me one CD for Christmas, while I gave him two CDs and knit him a scarf . A sign of the state of our relationship at the time - my devotion to him, and his breaking away from me. He broke up with me that same week in his cold Colorado house. And then Joanna Newsom was what I listened to on so many drives from Poughkeepsie to Cold Spring that early spring, along a cold Hudson River sidled with icy mountains and gray trees. Singing along and moving on. I must have bought her second album last winter with an iTunes gift card for my birthday.

My current boyfriend was surprised to discover that he liked Joanna Newsom, when he chanced upon free tickets to join me at her concert in McCarren Park Pool a couple summers ago (a concert I spent $35 to attend). He came along with me to the concert at BAM this week. But while I was lulled by her melodies and streams of senseless lyrics into wallowing in sadness and memories, he was jolted into negativity by her between-song bantering and terribly cramped balcony seats (so high, I felt I could almost touch the gilded ceiling). I personally think all between song bantering is dumb and annoying, but I don't let that ruin concerts for me. Or maybe I enjoyed the concert more because Joanna Newsom's music, and music in general, has had so much more meaning in my life.

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