Monday, March 28, 2016

Joanna Newsom at The Orpheum (3/25/16) and Rob Crow's Gloomy Place at The Echo (3/26/16)

Time for me to get back to reviewing some recent shows, as I have been bad about new content, and I have seen some really great shows recently.

Joanna Newsom (above) very easily knocked my head off Friday night at The Orpheum. This may only have been the fourth time I've been to one of her shows but she is undoubtedly one of the most commanding and engaging performers I have ever seen. I know some people who just can't get past her distinctive voice, and I admit, it took me one or two listens before I warmed to it. But her live performances reveal a spontaneity and a tonal richness that's not as evident in her recordings where everything is precisely measured. And her between song repartee is candid, funny, refreshingly unguarded, and in the end, endearing. She even fielded questions shouted from the audience as she took time out to tune her harp.

I had to let go the possibility of seeing her on Saturday night, March 26th, because I already had a ticket to see Rob Crow's Gloomy Place at The Echo that night. So I was living with that disappointment when suddenly she scheduled this Friday night show to accommodate all those unhappy fans who were sold out of her original date. Leaping at the chance, I was lucky enough to secure a fourth row ticket, thereby validating the rather expensive ticket price, while giving me the chance to witness the extraordinary range of her talent, and to observe it up close.

I arrived just as Robin Pecknold was warming up the audience with a simple acoustic set that showcased his incredible voice on some unfamiliar songs and other Fleet Foxes numbers
adapted to a solo format. His six song set gained momentum with each number and was enough to prime the audience for was was to come.

Joanna strode out to her harp at 10 to begin weaving a web that held me in thrall from beginning to end. Her music, impossible to categorize, is difficult and dense but the rewards are enormous as she cast a spell that is irresistible. Surrounded by talented and versatile friends and family, many of whom shared the surname Newsom, they formed a chamber orchestra of extraordinary skill. Many effortlessly switching instruments between numbers and making an orchestra of a few sound like many.

An inability to quantify her music come from the simple fact that there are so many influences that it becomes impossible to list them all, from folk-rock of the seventies to medieval choral chants to nineties new-age to sixties jazz. I'm not even aware of them all. It has the excitement and the revelation of discovery that comes only a few times in a lifetime. I couldn't help but reflect back to when I saw Joni Mitchell in 1969 knowing that I was experiencing something very special and very unique. These are the experiences that last a lifetime. 

The lyrics are steeped in personal reflections and are often difficult to grasp, but the overriding themes of her clear-eyed world view regarding love and loss, life and death come through loud and clear. The heady tumble of words, which fill pages and pages in each of her albums, reveal a poetic nature and philosophical attitude which infuses this artist's life and compel her to share her inner dialogue with her audience.

She dipped into all four of her albums to present a comprehensive overview of the huge range of styles her music encompasses. I loved hearing the new songs, especially "Anecdotes", "Divers", "Sapokanikan", and a favorite of mine, "Waltz of the 101st Lightborne" with many of the musicians changing instruments and Joanna sometimes switching instruments mid-song, from harp to piano and back to harp again.

Besides her impressive vocal rang, (her voice is often times mischaracterized as childlike when in actuality it is wildly flexible and filled with feeling and depth). She continues to grow as a singer, and near the end of her 1 hour 45 minute set she brought Robin Pecknold and Amber Coffman (above, center) out to add their voices to a few songs which added enormous power to the already overwhelming vocals. It was art and it was like paradise! For those who find art rock pretentious, part of the creation of great art is the necessity of flirting with the pretentious and knowing when to pull back so you don't fall over the cliff,  and that is something Ms.Newsom has mastered. She played again on Saturday night with a slightly altered set list.

On the following night I went to see Rob Crow's Gloomy Place (Rob Crow at right) at an early evening show at The Echo, since this was the Los Angeles debut of his new band, and I've had the ticket for months. It was everything anyone who has been mourning the loss of Pinback could have hoped for.

Opener Nick Reinhart lead the audience along a sci-fi induced hallucination of electronic music punctuated with severely stressed guitar distortion which was one long song that made up his entire set. We wandered the terrain of 1960"s spy movie scores, Forbidden Planet-type Bebe and Louis Barron 50's electronica and 70's Jerry Goldsmith Logan's Run soundtrack. It was a score for an unknown space movie in your head and my head was about to explode. Vertical Scratches brought us back to earth with a haughty and angular garage rock, even covering a Heavy Vegetable song for Rob.

Then it was time for Rob Crow's Gloomy Place. I'm afraid they had a lot to live up to for my expectations. This year without Pinback has been rough, but the wonderful new album, You're Doomed. Be Nice., laid to rest most of my fears. Fear not.

The pounding, throbbing bass lines are all there, topped by the buoyant melodies and Rob's virtuoso guitar playing and sturdy and flexible vocals. His voice is in great shape. The lyrics are dark and earnest and imbued with a bracing honesty, a product of his recent voyage of self-discovery. Newer songs with titles like "Autumnal Palette", "Paper Doll Parts", "Quit Being Dicks" and "Rest Your Soul" represent a new outlook and maybe even some optimism in the dark recesses. Rob looks healthy and well.

The five-piece band plays with equal dedication and the results sounded just as good as the recent record, which they played most of. I was happy to hear all the material that has been pulled from Rob Crow's solo albums Living Well and He Thinks He's People and reworked for this new ensemble. Each song in the set flowed directly into the next song with nary a pause for breath. They must have played 20 songs and only stopped three or four times during the entire set, just to give the appreciative audience a chance to applaud.

All in all it was a remarkable weekend for music and fired me up for more.