Joanna Newsom - Albert Hall, Manchester, 31st October 2015

Joanna Newsom – Albert Hall, Manchester, 31st October 2015

Joanna_Newsom by AnnabelMehranJoanna Newsom takes to the stage at the Albert Hall with a gigantic smile and opens with ‘Bridges and Balloons’ from 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender. Only – it’s in the wrong key, which is evident when the small band she has with her try to join in. Giggling, she gets straight back to the song, all hair and ballgown and furious fingers, but afterwards: “It’s eminently clear it’s our first show for a number of years,” she laughs. The audience are positively thrilled with her mistake; we get to see that the ethereal and seemingly superhuman musician we’ve come to see is fallible after all and everyone laughs along with her; there’s so much love in this hall and starting with an error has actually worked in her favour.

As well as being their first show for a while, it’s also the first one she’s ever played with her brother, Peter Newsom; she’s put him at the front of the stage on drums while the grand piano she will spend half the set playing sits at the back. With frequent family references in her work including many on new album Divers, he’s a heartwarming addition. “Daughter when you are able, come down and join!” she sings on album opener ‘Anecdotes’ in which she moves from grand piano to harp and back to piano.

With time as another theme of the album, ‘Soft as Chalk’ from 2010’s Have One on Me was perhaps chosen for the set for its lyrical appropriateness – “when time was just a line that you fed me…now I have got all the time in the world” – as well as the instrumentation available to her on stage. With her headset mic (which she describes as either like Britney Spears “or a jazzercise instructor”) Newsom tells us that violist Miriam Mayer has also learned to play keyboards for the tour, while Portland virtuoso Ryan Francesconi is surrounded in his corner by a small personal orchestra of instruments.

In the darker moments such as the new album’s title track, the combination of Francesconi’s rhythmic thumb piano with the ominous bass notes from the harp and the grand sounds bizarrely not a world away from the theme tune of John Carpenter’s Halloween on this oddly warm 31st October. But darkness is scarcely felt tonight; it’s a powerfully joyous and uplifting performance. The opening bars of ‘Emily’ from 2006’s Ys have the crowd whooping and on seat-edge, and with the song’s references to their sister and the two Newsoms on stage there’s a warm family feeling in the Hall again, one that we’re all part of.

On ‘Things I Say’ and ‘Waltz of the 101st Lightborne’ Newsom is animated at the piano, returning to the harp with concerns about her heels – can she pedal in them? Turns out she can. She can do anything, it would seem, and after ‘Have One on Me’, with Mayer joining in on the bright harmonies, Newsom takes to the keyboard for a brilliantly fun performance of ‘Goose Eggs’.

It’s refreshing to see her seated at the keyboard or piano with her hands flying across the keys just as they do her harp strings. It’s also good to hear her ‘new’ voice on the old songs, with the controlled vibrato she has found as well as the operatic heights she can now achieve on the recent material, for instance on recent single ‘Sapokanikan’. Barely seeming to draw in breath despite the long phrases and spectacular wandering melodies, Newsom leads her band to a beautiful recorder duet climax as she tells us to “look and despair!”

The proggy ‘Leaving the City’ gets a lone headbanger going on the balcony, then it’s back to Ys for ‘Cosmia’ with its precious “dum de dum” outro. The set ends with ‘Time, As a Symptom’, the first half just Newsom on piano, later building to a crescendo that includes Mayer impressing with simultaneous viola and harmonies.

“Love is not a symptom of time, time is a symptom of love”, sings Newsom. The audience in the Albert Hall have plenty of both time and love for her, as has been evident throughout the 90 minute set, but it’s sealed with a standing ovation.

For the encore, an exquisite performance of ‘A Pin-Light Bent’ is the only song of the night to feature Newsom alone on stage with her harp. The band return for a new arrangement of ‘Peach, Plum, Pear’ from The Milk-Eyed Mender, with a noticeable past tense lyric change – “I was blue”. And she is clearly anything but blue this evening; delighted to be back on stage and thrilled by the devotion and response of the crowd. The audience leaves the Albert Hall feeling euphoric and somewhat overwhelmed by the experience.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.