Joanna Newsom was not even halfway through her May 23rd show at the DR Koncerthuset in Copenhagen, Denmark when she got up from behind her majestic blond-wood harp and told the audience she had to stop and tune her instrument. Oh, and while she was busy doing that, the members of her five-piece band would be happy to take questions. For the next twenty minutes, as Newsom attended at what seemed like every string on her concert harp, we discovered, among other things, that drummer Neal Morgan loves coffee but hates caffeine (he only drinks decaf) and trombonist Andrew Strain was reading William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury on tour.
The Q&A session should have been a spellbreaker. It came between Newsom’s delicately playful step back to “The Book of Right On,” from her first album, 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, and the languid medieval psychedelia of “Kingfisher,” the next-to-closing epic on her new triple-disc set, Have One on Me. But the antique sensual melodrama of Newsom’s records comes, on stage, with a surprisingly chirpy warmth and visible physical delight, even from behind that harp. In Copenhagen, she repeatedly spiced her taut sprays of plucked harmonies – in soft dancing counterrhythms to Morgan and guitarist Ryan Francesconi – and the plaintive wonder in her whooping-angel voice with squeaks of laughter and mile-wide smiles, the latter even as she detailed the emotional zigzags in Have One’s “Good Intentions Paving Company.” In the encore, “Baby Birch,” Newsom’s face lit up with impish pleasure when Francesconi punched through the shadows with an assaultive burst of electric guitar. Newsom may not rock, in the bullish sense. But she is no wallflower.
Newsom opened alone at the harp with “’81,” from Have One on Me, and gave most of the show’s two hours over to the album. (She returned only once to her 2006 breakthrough, Ys, for “Monkey and Bear.”) Even that wasn’t enough: she played nothing from Disc Two. But Newsom’s long wanders through “Soft as Chalk,” “Autumn” and the title song affirmed the record’s step beyond Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, the distinguishing influence on Ys, into a wider range of pop airs and earthy graces: the vocal acrobatics of Kate Bush; Laura Nyro’s suspended-falsetto soul; the Indo-folk-orchestra strains of the Incredible String Band; the California acid-cowboy dreaming of the pre-downfall David Crosby.
It is still the sound of someone moving through precedent. But there is already something rare and personal in Newsom’s trip, and she is getting closer to truly undiscovered country. She took a chance in Copenhagen, hitting the brakes to tune her harp. But the spell and momentum came back, right away, with her next stroke of the strings.