Joanna Newsom and Roy Harper – Live at the Palace Theatre, Manchester 18/09/2010

Review by Chris Gilliver

It’s hard to believe that the Saruman lookalike in the floral shirt in front of me is the same Roy Haper Led Zeppelin wrote a song for called ‘Hats Off to (Roy) Harper’, who sang on Pink Floyd’s ‘Have a Cigar’, and who reportedly inspired Kate Bush, Pete Townsend and a host of other well-respected musicians – though it is easy to see that he inspired Jethro Tull. I’ve only seen that deranged circular eye movement once before, and that was on the face of Ian Anderson as he pranced around like a flute-toting, cartoon villain.

As well as an ironically self-styled “militant extremist”, Harper obviously fancies himself as a social and political English eccentric laughing in the face of convention. Fine, but he does it in that twee, Mother Nature loving, druid worshiping (one of his songs is about the Green Man), 60s British folk fashion that may have been rebellious once, but is now gratingly and embarrassingly unfunny. The crowd love it though, laughing and applauding in equally large measures, which makes me feel that I’m experiencing a massive joke that I’m not parley to, thus enhancing my growing antipathy for Harper.

All this aside he is obviously a highly competent, charmingly unfocused musician with a voice that is remarkably athletic for a 69 year old stoner. I turn to my Neocon friend and ask him what he thinks. “He’s a dickhead” is the predictably curt reply. I can’t whole-heartedly disagree…

Where with Roy Harper I feel that I’m the only one in this pleasant Palace who doesn’t love the man, apart from the Neocon obviously, with Joanna Newsom it’s always been the opposite. Every person I’ve actively encouraged to listen to Newsom has told me that her unbearable caterwauling is impossible to see past. Though I would say that it’s charmingly eccentric, even Joanna admits that her voice is “untrainable”.  I’ve felt for a long time that I’m the only person who really gets how amazing she is both as a songwriter and a musician. Her preposterously complex harp picking is only bettered by her ability to pen songs of incredible, eloquent beauty. So you can imagine how happy I am to be one of many in the Palace Theatre who thinks the same, and how ambivalent I feel that for others in the audience Harper is the main act and Newsom the sideshow.

She starts with ‘Bridges And Balloons’, the opener to her superb debut album The Milk Eyed Mender, and it’s so lovely I can hardly believe it. From this simple, harp-driven moment, she moves into the more orchestrally complex stuff of her latest album. It’s a step from emotive, catchy simplicity to something more cerebral. As such it’s less enjoyable, but no less fascinating. ‘Easy’ and ‘Have One On Me’ prove that her voice is anything but “untrainable” as she carefully enunciates the high notes with precision and dexterity.

Somehow I always imagined, in my mind’s eye, that she would reveal herself onstage as a two foot pixie who dances with talking animals. It is surprising then, though obviously it shouldn’t be, when she turns out to be strikingly normal with a wicked sense of humour and an easy rapport with the audience. Maybe I’m the crazy one.

She ends with my favourite track of hers, ‘Peach, Plumb, Pear’, a sublime tale of shy retirement with a phenomenal harp part. The confident person who Joanne Newsom is today must wonder who wrote it. I’ll tell you, one of the leading musicians of the last ten years…

3 responses

21 09 2010

..and I thought I was the only one in there who didn’t “love the man”. Wholeheartedly agree with those Roy Harper comments, hit the nail on the head.

22 09 2010

You obviously don’t understand why Joanna loves Roy then?!

16 11 2010

The only dickhead is the one who prefers her to the legend that is Roy Harper

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