Joanna Newsom was at her beguiling best at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall, writes Richard Blackledge
“I like to create an atmosphere of uncertainty,” says Joanna Newsom, grinning from the stage at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall.
She’s referring to her fondness for shaking up the setlist at short notice, keeping her four musicians on their toes, but she could just as easily be describing her writing generally.
At the first listen, it’s always unclear in which direction her songs are going to go, although last year’s album Divers presented the US harp player at her most accessible, stepping back from the 10-minute epics of 2006’s Ys and 2010’s Have One On Me in favour of a series of comparatively concise reflections on time and memory.
Critically revered, even the support – Fleet Foxes leader Robin Pecknold – praises her as the ‘greatest songwriter on the planet’, and he’s certainly no slouch, offering a clutch of promising new works and a number apiece from his band’s two albums before wisely retreating to lessen the risk of stealing the show.
But the audience are sold as soon as Newsom swishes on in her pink and blue dress (made of some water-treated fabric, apparently, and tying in with the general Divers theme), easing into a muted take on ‘Bridges and Balloons’, then moving adeptly from piano to harp, and piano again, during ‘Anecdotes’, an exploration of history’s unreliability – a weighty topic, maybe, and on record some songs would benefit from footnotes, so dense are the lyrics.
However, live it seems easier to take it all at face value and appreciate the painstaking effort her art, mainly written with her beloved harp, surely requires.
‘Have One On Me’ – one of those aforementioned, sprawling creations, dealing with the tale of a King and a dancing girl – almost gains a standing ovation early on; although anyone who has heard Newsom must concede that her voice has a certain Marmite appeal.
Alternately cooing and cawing, it’s the trait that marks her out as a unique prospect most definitively, but arguably holds her back from becoming a real household name.
But no matter. There’s clearly much more to come, and if the entire Philharmonic is on its feet after the jaunty ‘Good Intentions Paving Co’, there’s little uncertainty that plenty of listeners will be sticking around to hear it.
Joanna Newsom’s tour continues in Dublin on Thursday, March 3, followed by dates in America, before returning to the UK in September for the End of the Road festival in Dorset.