Tom Reed 17/09/2010
It's hard to imagine Joanna Newsom as being immodest, but halfway through 'Good Intentions Paving Co.' she sings the line “Right here at the top of my game” and, on the basis of tonight's performance, you'd be hard pushed to disagree with her. For an hour and a half she casts a spell over the ornate and stuffy surroundings of Birmingham's Symphony Hall with her twisting, complex but consistently beautiful songwriting.
Newsom is a good fit for this kind of venue, given the (for want of a better word) classical features of her music. It's hard to classify tunes like 'Have One On Me' or the stunning 'Emily' as songs - these are pieces, performed by stunningly talented musicians to an audience in rapt silence throughout.
The reduced arrangements are spread between percussion, two string players, trombone and a variety of exotic guitars and are meticulously realised. On record, Newsom's songs are swathed in vast everything-and-the-kitchen-sink arrangements, especially those on 2006's 'Ys' album. Here, Newsom is often left with either her harp or piano and that keening, mannered yet strangely angelic voice. The other musicians dive gracefully in and out of the songs, especially on encore 'Baby Birch', it's stately and choral opening shattered by shards of electric guitar.
The set leans heavily on Newsom's recent triple disc megalith of an album 'Have One On Me', and the songs performed tonight belie some new influences to Newsom's sound. Album opener 'Easy' lays a Kate Bush style vocal melody over a deceptively jazzy beat, while 'Good Intentions Paving Co.' could in lesser hands be turned into a full on country hoedown. Here the opening driving rhythm is broken by a lush, mellow middle section, before climbing back through the gears into a neat, improvised trombone-led breakdown.
As Newsom leaves the stage, a wide-eyed childish grin on her face, she gives the impression of being genuinely thrilled at the standing ovation she deservedly receives. It's incredibly refreshing to see someone making highbrow music seem so down to earth and excited at the thrill of performing.