Joanna NewsomSolar Culture Gallery, Sunday, April 4
What is it that makes a small woman with a big instrument so erotic? Even if she didn't open her mouth, the diminutive, pixieish Joanna Newsom and her grand harp would have been sexy enough. But add to that her Southern gothic twang of a voice--reedy enough to resemble a crying baby when she really opens it up--and stunningly gorgeous lyrics that could only flow from the pen of a creative-writing student (or at least someone who's read as much literature as one), and you've got a unique talent with absolutely no peers.
Clad in a faux-naif, neo-prairie dress and knee-high fringed moccasins, Newsom and her harp created a sound big enough to enrapture the 50 or so inhabitants of Solar Culture, save the moments when a passing train made it impossible: Newsom fought back by singing louder and plucking more fiercely (and pluck, she could), but she finally gave in, pausing a moment until its din had retreated.
All of this, of course, was impressive, Newsom providing a fresh sex symbol for the well-read, romantic hipster types, but she wouldn't have counted for much more than mere novelty were it not for the strength of her songwriting. Invoking the likes of Carson McCullers and Will Oldham (for whom she opened her last time through town), Newsom spun lyrical tales too complex to try and encapsulate here, but whose snippets speak volumes nonetheless: "Down where I darn with the milk-eyed mender / you and I, and a love so tender / is stretched on the hoop where I stitch this adage: / "Bless our house and its heart so savage."
After about 40 minutes, when Newsom bid the gathered good night, no one wanted to leave.
"What do you want to hear?" she asked. Following the requisite Skynyrd call-out (seriously, people, stop it now--it was only funny the first time you heard it, 10 years ago), it wasn't a song title but a line from "This Side of the Blue" that was referenced: "Play the one with the line about the shape of their goneness flaring up anew." And she did. And we were happy.