A Holy Saturday Evening with Joanna Newsom

joanna newsom orpheum

Two Saturdays ago I had what felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Joanna Newsom live in concert. I bought a ticket somewhat late but because I only needed one, I was assigned the first available seat—I was not prepared for exactly how perfect a seat it was. 

The night of the show, I was conflicted. It was a friend’s birthday, and I wanted to go to his party, but the show was going to run fairly late. I would have preferred to fall out of airplane without a parachute than leave before Joanna Newsom was over, so I compromised (with myself?) and agreed to come by afterward, if the party was still raging. 

I am not normally one to “care” about how I “look.” But that night, I laid out a dress that I rarely wear, put on some makeup, and even styled my hair. I had intended to leave early enough to be seated before Robin Pecknold took the stage, but traffic in the city had other plans for me. By the time I had arrived, waited in the box office line to pick up my tickets and figured out where I was sitting, I could hear Pecknold cooing in the theater. 

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Only when I was standing in a second line waiting for ushers to chauffeur people to their seats did I realize just how close my seat was. When I sat and saw Robin directly in front of me, I lost my breath for a moment. Safe to say I was someone who had never sat in a premium location before

Pecknold played an acoustic set, and the few songs I was in the room to hear only made me want more. He did sing “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” from Fleet Foxes’ first album, but I don’t recall anything from Helplessness Blues

Once Robin took off, the lights came up and I finally got my bearings. I was so close to the stage that I could taste the celebrity presence, though from what I’ve read, the most recognizable stars showed up the previous night. I tried my very hardest but could not find Andy Samberg, but I did see an SNL alum friend of his, John Mulaney. I also spied Carrie Coon and her husband, Tracy Letts, who were ogling what I can only assume was another famous person sitting in a box seat above us. All the while, a harp was being hauled onto the stage, getting tuned and probably sweating profusely from pre-performance nerves. I don’t blame it, I was getting nervous myself. 

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When Joanna finally reached the stage, the show became all but a blur. She was joined by Ryan Francesconi on guitar (and a number of other instruments); Mirabai Preart on mainly violin; Veronique Serret on viola/back up vocals; as well as her brother, Pete; and sister, namesake of the track “Emily.” Though not quite the orchestra I expected, they still made awe-inspiring music. “Sawdust and Diamonds” made me smile, “Cosmia” nearly made me cry, and “Peach Plum Pear” made me cheer. The harmonies I admired most on Divers, especially on “Waltz” and “Time,” rang throughout the theater, snapping me back into reality; I had almost begun to think it was a dream. 

Toward the beginning of the show, though, the audience had the most fun. After only three songs, Joanna announced that she needed to tune her harp (again), and that she’d be happy to take questions. I initially thought that a Joanna Newsom crowd would be too respectful and dignified to shout dumb questions at her, but I was wrong. And some questions were quite dumb. (Apparently it was so bad the previous night that she “got by on a half-tuned harp.”)

No query made that impromptu Q&A session worth it to me, but there were some frivolities that I was pleased to hear. Joanna’s favorite animal is a hummingbird because “they don’t seem like they should exist,” and when asked how she remembers all her lyrics, she responded “I don’t. I’ve messed up maybe ten lines already tonight.” She also told us that the dress she was wearing (seen in the grainiest photo known to man below) was part of a set designed by Michael van der Ham exclusively for Divers. The one she was wearing that night shimmered, and understandably was meant for “A Pin-Light Bent.” 

As much as I did want the questions to stop, there were two moments that made the night for me. The first was when she was prompted to give an opinion on Trump. “Oh,” she said, looking down at her tuner. “He’s not a good guy…” She looked up. “He’s actually a piece of shit, isn’t he?” We all cheered. 

And then there was this:

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For a grande finale, Joanna knew how to tug at my heartstrings. For what I thought was surely our last track, Amber Coffman walked out to a free mic and began to provide back-up vocals. But no one left the stage once they were finished- instead someone walked back out onto stage to join Amber: Mr. Clean-Shaven Robin Pecknold. But wait! They all played another song after that one, which finally became the last song of the night. The track titles escape me, but seeing the faces of the two guests singing along with Joanna Newsom was pure gold. Apparently even Joanna’s friends are smitten with Joanna. 

And then it was time to go home. When I finally made it to the party, everyone was already gone. A grouchy neighbor had called the cops and only the annoying stragglers were left. I took that chance to celebrate the life-affirming experience I had just had the pleasure to take part in, and drank all the Ketel One in his apartment. The next day was Easter, and I’m sure Jesus was frowning down upon me, but I could only think of Joanna. 

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