The Brooklyn Academy of Music hummed with anticipation last night. One row ahead of me in the hipster-heavy crowd, Saturday Night Live clowns Andy Samberg, Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer whispered and giggled to one another. The formally attired players of the Brooklyn Philharmonic filed quietly on stage. And the sold-out house burst into fevered applause when the night’s star strode out from the wings: Indie-folk harpist Joanna Newsom, here to play her 2006 masterpiece Ys in its entirety on the next-to-last date of a world tour.
Ys (pronounced "eess") is a profoundly strange piece of music, perhaps even more so in a live setting. The Philharmonic brought composer Van Dyke Parks‘ psychedelic orchestral arrangements to head-spinning life as Newsom led them through the album’s five meandering suites. And Newsom’s dexterous dance with her harp strings was, as always, impressive. But her sheer verbal wizardry was what really drove the show — her ability to recite an hour’s worth of dense, passionate poetry without missing a beat. Newsom is one of the few musicians who’s really, truly unlike anyone else at all. Still, the way she unleashed those great gusts of language made her seem something like an ancient rhapsode unspooling Homer from memory, or Dylan at his far-out ’66 peak, or maybe Lil Wayne on a particularly peak-quality mixtape bender. (Joanna Newsom: Best rapper alive?)
The Philharmonic definitely added a vivid jolt to Newsom’s songs, but she shone most brightly on the night’s sole solo performance, "Sawdust and Diamonds". After Ys, she ditched the orchestral baggage altogether and returned with a stripped-down trio — "the Ys Street Band," as she’s wittily dubbed them — to play some old favorites and a couple of new pieces, plus a brief interlude in which Newsom and her drummer enthusiastically endorsed Barack Obama in advance of next week’s New York primary. Both of the new offerings were long, untitled, and beautifully weird. (Check out a recent performance in Brazil of Newsom’s second new song below.) One fleeting performance was hardly enough to tease out their meanings; here’s hoping Newsom heads back to the studio soon so we can pore over them properly.