(With Alasdair Roberts), Albert Hall, Manchester, 31/10/2015
published: 25 /
Keith How finds pianist and harpist Joanna Newsom a conflicting experience at the Albert Hall in Manchester
Halloween. Wandering through the zombie and vampire inhabited streets to this gig was a supernatural affair in its own right and having the opportunity to see a live performance by the otherworldly Joanna Newsome completed the idea of a fantasy evening out. Fortunately my fellow Pennyblackmusic contributor and friend Nicky Crewe was my guide through the streets of Manchester. She also had previous with Ms. Newsom where as I was a “virgin”. Although familiar with her recorded works, I was curious to see if my personal impressions were correct.
The Albert Hall is a lovely venue, and we took our places in an atmosphere that seemed charged with anticipation. Conversations with our immediate neighbours revealed much devotion towards Newsom.
Alisdair Roberts ambled on stage with no fuss, no trouble. His “good evening” seemed to be missed by many. Armed with just his guitar and voice the nuances of a superb and all too short set seemed to be overlooked by many who continued to chat loudly or seemingly moved to disturb anyone interested in the music in a hunt for more beer. Undeterred, Roberts delivered a set of tremendous passion and dexterity. His guitar playing was just a joy to behold while his vocal delivery overflowed with soul. The power of a person, a guitar and a song is in safe hands with Alisdair Roberts. While echoing past masters such as Bert Jansch, he was the complete modern nu-folk singer with the ability to transport a large audience to another place.
There was quite a wait before the houselights dimmed and we were greeted by a full throated roar of anticipation . She appeared. I realised I was in the Church of Newsom, and Our Lady of the Harp had appeared before us. Dressed in a stunning frock and with flowing locks Joanna Newsom is every inch an elven queen amongst her devoted followers. The crowd simply erupted as she smiled and waved seemingly quite overcome by the welcome bestowed upon her. Far away from the monsters stalking the streets outside, we were in the presence of a being from a celestial world.
All this before a note of music had been played!
Which was good because, to every one's delight, she started the first song in the wrong key proving her humanity. An infectious giggle and apology was greeted with delight and laughter and off we went. Joanna skipped between harp and piano, while her band members were all employed between percussion, violin, guitars and keyboards. First and foremost Joanna Newsom is a very talented lady both on piano and harp. Her fingers flickered over keys and strings, while the band provided the canvas for her songs to express themselves. Each of her compositions were like mini operas, complicated and lengthy with varying time changes and atmospheres. Musically interesting and challenging and always engaging, there was much to delight in.
Then there was the Marmite Moment - Johanna’s voice. For me I could not distinguish a single lyric throughout the whole concert (which has always spoiled my listening to her recorded works). Irritating and enchanting in equal measure, the constant straining to hear the story proved quite taxing. I suspect I was in the minority though judging by the rapture to which each song was received.
In retrospect the evening was a juxtaposition. The earthiness of Alisdair Roberts was the perfect foil for Joanna Newsom’s ethereal ability to create a magical atmosphere.
Stepping out from the gig was almost akin to returning from Wonderland and finding yourself in '28 Days Later'. The train journey home only confounded the weirdness but that is another story!