A Room With A Crush: Joanna Newsom At The Black Cat

They are probably still on their feet applauding at the Black Cat. Sure, the staff would've kicked 'em out, but they probably just stood outside and stared at the bar, clapping. They probably were cheering as Joanna Newsom and her band drove away.

I was surprised that the show sold out. Joanna has released two terrific albums, but I've not been able to turn anyone on to her music, which is probably as it should be. She's not really an artist you listen to with others. It's a much more personal experience between the performer and the listener, and a few hundred of us listeners comprised maybe the most adoring audience I've ever seen. Joanna's voice grates on many, one of those love it or hate it voices, but the "love it" contingent is more robust than I knew and just as smitten as I.

The line outside the Black Cat stretched past Bar Pilar Friday night. The bar's muddled entry process seems less navigable by the masses each time I go to a crowded show. The three-stop, ID-stamp/ticket-counter/ticket-taker-stamp is a gauntlet for pre-partiers, even after they've sobered up a bit after spending a half hour in line on a 40-degree November night in D.C., most bundled up like they're expecting snow. To exacerbate the situation, concertgoers got a smoking ban preview, as it was a no-smoking affair inside, which means half the people in line aren't all that concerned about moving quickly to the front and into the show, knowing it'll be awhile before they can light up again. To their credit, the staff does at least try to speed up the process by exchanging the little red "Admit One" tickets you need to get your second stamp with those in line holding onto pre-purchased Ticketmaster tickets.

Inside and up the stairs the first thing you notice is the harp standing there center stage. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me I could be so excited to see a woman playing a harp. Dressed in white and looking radiant, Joanna first took the stage alone, sitting down to straddle her harp, thus disappearing from the view of most of us in the room, and altogether we were up on our tiptoes to see better. Futile. I was lucky to get an angle through which I could see her hands pluck and strum the strings with gentle dexterity. She started with a couple gems from 2004's "The Milk-Eyed Mender." That album's opening track, "Bridges And Balloons," starts soft with pretty strumming and delicate plucking, before her voice, cartoonish and childlike, almost approaches a screech on the chorus: "Oh MY love/Oh it was a funny little thing/...To be...the ones...to've seen." She starts lower on the second song, "The Book of Right-On," sparse and haunting plucks give the song a creepy rhythm. The lyric "I killed my dinner with karate/Kick 'em in the face, taste the body/Shallow work is the work that I do" has been the most memorable line on "The Milk-Eyed Mender" for me, and I think many in the crowd agreed, as that got the most sing-alongs and smiles of the set. Joanna then gave us a traditional Scottish song before introducing her band and switching focus to her second album "Ys" (pronounced "ease"), released on Tuesday. So I was pleased to hear "The Book of Right-On" but left longing to here my favorite "Milk-Eyed" tune, "This Side of the Blue."

Four multiinstrumentalists provided an interpretation of Van Dyke Parks' orchestral arrangments for "Ys" -- playing a music geek's dream collection of instruments, including banjos and accordions and even a saw -- but Joanna and her harp were still the focal point of the music. They played "Ys" start to finish, as I imagined they might. After three days listening to it, it was hard to think of them playing those five epic songs in any other order. Joanna's accompaniests mostly offered gentle, supportive touches to her singing and plucking, at times coming together in chilling swells. These five songs are 10-minute-plus journeys. Joanna's vocabularly is substantial and she uses it to stunning effect, creating vivid imagery and delivering it with unique enunciation and wordplay. "Monkey & Bear," the second song from the new album, is a terrific fable about a monkey and bear escaping their farm and paying for their freedom by performing for children. It comes across like a tale of forbidden and, ultimately, illfated love. Maybe the most impressive instrument on stage is Joanna's voice when it cracks, and she cracks frequently on the word "and," particularly in "Sawdust & Diamonds" and the show and album closer, "Cosmia." Those high-pitched, squealing "ands" were piercing in person. "And I miss your precious heart," she sings througout "Cosmia," making the hair on my neck stand up.

She stood and smiled sweetly at us before exiting the stage with her band as the crowd roared. Throughout the evening, the crowd followed the standard routine of audience approval at quiet show -- a rumble of applause at the beginning of each song upon recognition of what was playing and then a roar at the end of each song. For several minutes we stared at the stage and cheered. Signaling no more, the club played music, but it was inaudible beneath the applause. Several minutes later, the house lights came on and I gave up. But as I walked out of the Black Cat, a good portion of the adoring throng kept hope, steadfast as they hollered for more from this elfin beauty who'd taken hold of all of us. I hope they get their encore. Or they might never leave.

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