Alert The Audience!

Jacob Nelson

By Jacob NelsonThe Daily Northwestern

The first time I ever heard a harp was on Tuesday, when a friend played me “The Book of Right-On” by Joanna Newsom. Of course, before then I knew what a harp was and what it looked like, but really, when do you ever actually hear one?

I don’t know how they sound typically, but when being played by an indie-rock artist influenced by African harp rhythms and pop music, the harp sounds like an elaborate acoustic guitar that never utilizes chords, opting instead for melodic individual notes. After listening to two songs during a brisk walk, I was convinced: this hippie could play.

Opening for Newsom at Logan Square Auditorium Wednesday night was Bobby Birdman, a lone guitarist who exemplified just how easy it is to make boring music when you go solo. Strumming notes on his electric guitar while crooning vocals throughout nearly 10 songs with all-too-similar melodies, Birdman managed to lose pretty much everyone’s attention in about 15 minutes. And it wasn’t that he was untalented; his finger-picking was as impressive as the smoothness of his vocals. It was just dull.

After Birdman finished, it was time. A bright light shined on the huge, almost celestial harp sitting center-stage, and a cheery Newsom, sporting red lipstick as bright as her red dress, took her seat and began.

Now, it’s difficult to explain exactly how Newsom manages to command attention with just her voice and her harp, but I think it has something to do with how she uses each. It would be an understatement to say Newsom’s voice is unique. When she sings, Newsom sounds a little like she’s foreign and a little like she’s 5. And oddly enough, it actually sounds really nice.

Combined with her fascinating lyrics, which are reminiscent of Decemberists’ lyrics in that they tell elaborate stories with flawlessly placed rhymes, and her fusion of differing types of playing the harp, Newsom’s songs become so captivating and melodic you almost don’t notice how funny her face looks when she sings (you do, though, and it is pretty funny).

Newsom began by playing songs off of her first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, released in 2004, but then brought out a full band to play songs off her newest album, Ys, a five-track record with epic story-telling songs no shorter than seven-minutes long (and as long as nearly 17). The full band included a drummer, guitarist, banjo-player, back-up singer, and even an accordion player (with another very funny mustache, I don’t get it with these crazy indie people).

But even with a full-band, the one aspect that never stopped standing out was that harp. Though the band participated in most of the set, there were moments where nobody did anything except, as a friend pointed out, watch Newsom as lovingly as the rest of the audience.

However, I realized something as I watched: I often drifted during the longer songs off of Newsom’s new record. I use the word “drift” because I didn’t exactly stop paying attention; I just started thinking about other things. I continued to acknowledge the music being played before me, but my mind wasn’t really focused on it anymore. I asked my friends after if they felt the same phenomenon and they agreed. I suppose music that soft and songs that long will do that to you.

Toward the end of the set, Newsom and her band walked off-stage. Newsom returned to play three more songs, including “The Book of Right-On,” much to the delight of everyone there, and then finished, this time for good.

At least I now know what a harp sounds like.

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