It took a while for the wonderful singer and harpist Joanna Newsom to start her sold-out show at Town Hall last night. Lou Reed slumped in an aisle seat, looking unamused. He puckered his lips absentmindedly and stared straight ahead. He sat one row behind Ms. Newsom’s companion, Andy Samberg, and his friends from Saturday Night Live, who seemed much happier. Antony Hegarty, Mr. Reed’s sometimes collaborator, said a quiet and rickety hello to a fan near the door.
“Sorry,” Ms. Newsom said when she took the stage. “I was just talking to a guy who said I was awesome.”
The last time she had a New York City show as big as this, she played with the Brooklyn Philharmonic at BAM in February 2008. Those songs were from her hugely sumptuous and lush last album, Ys, and they were ocean-sized thanks to arrangements from Van Dyke Parks, the Beach Boys colleague: “Violins, voices, the harp, horns and harmonies shook and bent and swelled together until everything bulged and burst,” The Observer wrote then, “and bubbled up again.”
Last night she brought only a quintet, who played pared-down arrangements of her new album, Have One on Me, which is downright modest compared to the last one. After one song alone on the harp, she was joined by the new album’s arranger, Ryan Francesconi, who plays electric guitar, banjo and a Bulgarian tambura (which sounds like it would be annoying, but isn’t), plus a drummer, two violins and a trombonist.
It’s the difference between, say, a forest and a garden. But the economy was lovely. The violins waltzed with the swirls of harp. Melodies popped up, twisted around, crouched down and started again. Tempos swayed forward, hung back and hurled ahead. Momentarily thumps of drums sounded like approaching armies. An electric guitar sprang out on “Baby Birch” and let out pretty Dixie twangs on “Soft as Chalk.”
It would be easy to miss the old lushness, considering that Have One on Me is a two-hour, three-CD album, but it’s easier to be swept along by those surprises, Ms. Newsom’s skyscraper falsetto and her Technicolor harp. The Village Voice‘s Rob Harvilla, in fact, would prefer to hear her alone.
The guitarist Kevin Barker opened the show with a set of very easygoing, very mid-tempo, very lukewarm music. His bassist wore a watch and chain on his vest, and actually seemed to check the time at one point. The drummer played the triangle: He had very long hair that looked well-conditioned. So did Mr. Barker. Together they made music that would be good to listen to in an armchair in socks.
Ms. Newsom, even without a philharmonic behind her, makes music for seafaring, blossoms, spacewalks and first kisses.
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