Possibly the most popular harpist of our generation, the incomparable Miss Joanna Newsom, returned to Dublin on Tuesday evening for the first time since she kindly played a few tunes at a little birthday party I had in the Olympia a few years ago. Continuing her upgrade through the city’s fully-seated, tiered theatres, she was welcomed by a sold out crowd in the relatively new Grand Canal Theatre. It seemed that most people at the gig had yet to visit the venue which is understandable when you consider the bulk of their previous programming has focused on a completely different crowd. But a Joanna Newsom gig is always special. It’s always one that brings people out of the woodwork and hangs excitement in the air.
Inside the beautifully pristine auditorium, people eagerly await her arrival with many people debating which songs from her epic new album might make the cut. She arrives onstage before 9:30pm with five additional musicians in tow. As is often the case when I’m photographing, I’m not entirely sure what the first song was, but I’m 99% sure it was ” ’81” (and that other 1% always disagrees with me anyway). The audience are hushed, as they have always been on previous visits. She has a mysticism in the eyes of fans in Ireland and around the world that commands this kind of silence. Newsom seems in good form though and throughout the night her attitude is positive and friendly. Her band add delicate, intermittent demonstrations on any number of instruments and they quickly move into the title track of her current 3-disc release “Have One On Me”. The arrangements tonight are somewhat more robust than on the album with a rhythmic punctuation accompanying her every vocal inflection. Moving across to the piano, she tells a story about overhearing people in Dublin in 2007 analysing her “awful” performance the night before. She laughs off the incident before quite suddenly switching back into performer mode for “Easy”.
Most of the tracks that make the cut come from the new album, as you would expect, but when a voice occasionally pipes up later on, they invariably request songs from her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. “Inflammatory Writ” is the first time she delves into her bag of old tricks, but the song is performed with a more intricate vocal melody, added violin flourishes and percussive trimmings. “Monkey & Bear” from her vast and ambitious second album Ys is treated to excellent vocal harmonies from the band and the brilliantly scattered and dramatic percussion of Neal Morgan. During an interval imposed on us by Newsom’s need to coat her callous-less fingertips with superglue, she attempts to fill the void by engaging in chit chat with the crowd. At first, it’s awkward, with the crowd – awestruck to within an inch of breaking into a Wayne’s World impression of “We’re not worthy!” – only responding with nervous laughter. But the questions soon start to flow and we find out that Joanna cannot choose her favourite track, possibly visited Dublin’s Hard Rock Café on her 2007 visit and doesn’t have any real interest in Twitter. She balked at the question of whether she was “on” it and after a discussion over whether you can “see” Twitter or if it “comes to you” and why nobody gets in touch with Ashton Kutcher the old-fashioned way, the show eventually resumes.
The main set is closed with the warmly-received “Good Intentions Paving Company”. The soulful vocal timbre and ramshackle shuffling of the rhythm is enough to send anyone home with a smile on their face but the band return to squeeze in one more old favourite before 11pm. “Peach, Plum, Pear” is introduced with Ryan Francesconi’s interpretation of the main chord riff but Joanna Newsom soon takes hold of the song and a few minutes later she is bringing the concert to a wonderful end with some slightly frantic plucking of the higher strings. She had said she hopes to come back and, inevitably, people cheered in response. But on the evidence of this show and her ever-growing reputation, it seems like these fans will happily follow her wherever her musical journey takes her in the future.