Sunday, December 10, 2006

Notes from a scene part II: There's no line for the Joanna Newsom show

Now that Joe and I are in different cities, our get-togethers tend to revolve around music. Yesterday, it was the much-anticipated Joanna Newsom show, with a stop at the Madison Pop Fest first.

We got to the Rathskellar around 6.30, in time to see The Bracelets go on. We'd seen them a year ago at the Orpheum Stage Door, and been quite impressed with their sparser-than-Godspeed You! Black Emperor ambient sound. The atmosphere of the Stage Door, combined with the slide show the band was running behind them, had also worked well in their favor.

Today's show was... different. The brightly-lit Rat didn't play to the band's atmospherics (although when the lights were turned down partway through the show, the band got appreciably better). Also, the band has apparently decided that they need to sing - an unfortunate decision, given the guitarist's general inability to sing, or really sound good at all with sound coming out of his mouth. If they don't go back to the lyric-less format, which isn't something necessarily dictated by their sound, they really need to go toward the laptop-tronica sampling format, and start working in samples of other people's voices. There is some real potential there, but the lead's voice is not the right path.

Ambulette also played, and did a fantastic job - as the reviews had promised. Lead Maura Davis's vocals are really amazing, and the general sound worked very well around that. I saw comparisons to the Cardigans, while Joe saw Pretenders influences.

We didn't stick around for the other bands, deciding that we'd get in line for Joanna Newsom early (around 8.15 for the 9.30 doors). However, an unfortunately awkward gent (whom we'd later dub "clueless George," for reasons that will become apparent) was turning everyone away - "We're not letting anyone form a line - Joanna wants a closed sound-check." So, okay, we wandered away, roaming the back halls of the Union, seeing clustered knots of bored-looking indie kids all over the place.

It was rapidly becoming apparent that this was going to be a huge event. I didn't realize a the time that Pitchfork had marked this show on its front page, nor that All Music Considered had just added Newsom, but I did know that the Isthmus had profiled Joanna on the cover of its last issue. More ominously, I overheard one hipster mentioning to another that "yeah, my friend said that even if you've never heard of Joanna, or you hate her, if you're at all cool, you'll show up." Clearly, a Big Thing was brewing.

A knot of people (not a line, remember - that was verboten - even though it was really to straight to be a proper knot) was forming around the main staircase on the 3rd floor - just under the Great Hall - and by 9 the area was getting pretty crowded. Clueless George came down every so often to remind us that they weren't permitting a line to form (maybe he was adapting to the situation on the ground?), and that we should all just go away until 9.30. This obviously wasn't happening, but there clearly was no backup plan. The indie mob began to get restless, slowly creeping up the stairs, only to be chastized and chased back down by George. Around 9.25, the now mob (remember: not a line!) of people decided to go up the stairs - there were far more indie kids that Union staff of any kind, and Clueless George really seemed to be the only Union rep. there at all. Finally the doors opened at 9.30 - at which time a very large mob of indie kids (horror of horrors!) began to make its last push into the Great Hall. At this point, we realized that there were actually two lines - one had also formed in the upstairs hallway, marking the true limit of George's power.

The mob-in to the Great Hall actually went off well, with no fatalities except for the one emo kid who "accidentally" cut himself on a very sharp hand railing, apparently. Anyway, no one was stomped on, and Joe and I formed a coat pile with some other indie kids who proceeded to get a slow clap started. That failed to produce any results other than a vague look of confusion on George's face. (Other kids tried to get a slow clap going later. Their work was totally derivative, and they are n00bs.) Anyhow, it slowly became apparent that Nothing Was Happening, and the indie kids again grew restless. This in itself should have worried George, because usually indie kids are just lethargic, but he was on his cell phone, and apparently didn't notice.

That was about the point that it was announced that Joanna and Bill Callahan were still eating dinner (hopefully in a wimsical, interestingly offbeat fashion), and would be late. It was at this point that I was really glad this wasn't a metal show. I'm generally thankful for that, as I'm averse to mullets, worn ironically or not, but in this case, there most certainly would have been large, uncoordinated violence (which is to say, we had a chance to make up for the lack of rioting on Halloween; yes, the Joanna Newsom show came closer to producing a riot than Halloween - isn't that sad).

To summarize a lot of standing around boredly, we stood around boredly until about 10.40, when Smog finally took the stage. I think I'd heard one of his songs before, but I was unprepared for his voice, which was quite fantastic. Unfortunately, his song writing and guitar work really didn't live up to the quality of his voice, and everyone really just wanted him to get off the stage and get on with the Joanna Newsom show (for which there had never been a line). Which he finally did.

At about midnight, Joanna finally took the stage. She opened with Bridges and Balloons, which I'd only ever heard covered by The Decemberists. It was, of course, wonderful - she played unaccompanied. After playing through two other songs, one of which was an old Scottish song, she brought on a band and played through Ys. It was truly astounding. The very sparse arrangements made for a somehow deeper sound than on the album - using accordion, drum (one big bass drum and cymbals, nothing else), guitar, an odd Ukrainian balalaika-type stringed isntrument, banjo, jaw harp, and, at the end, a singing saw, the depth and quality of sound was indescribable. It was truly an other-worldly experience, with Joanna's voice always standing out, even when harmonizing with two backup singers. Also, the band she was playing with were all fantastically professional (unlike Regina Spektor's studio-session goons).

So all in all, it was 100% worth every hassle we dealt with. Standing for 5 hours, being packed like sardines, first on the stairs and then in the Great Hall, the heat - all worth it. A truly incredible experience.


Blogger Joseph said...

nice review of the show.
i wish i could have been there, but it sounds like the $12 i paid to see her in lawrence were worth it.

8:07 AM  
Anonymous Tracy said...

Totally: Joanna Newsom and her band put on one of the best shows ever. And Smog: gosh what wooden metaphors he makes. I was so happy when he finished.

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review - makes me want to see this show. Was there much saw playing? I love the singing saw. Was the player this one: ? If so, I can't wait for this show to come somewhere near me.

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think i am "clueless george". did said person have a gray sweatshirt on with red and white (teeth and a mouth) in the middle?

if so, that is me. good review of the show. thanks for coming. i kept calling joanna et al. on various cell phone numbers (b/c they turned off / let every call go to voice mail!).

my name is jamie, if you see me elsewhere. but could deal with being "clueless jamie" or "clueless george".

6:37 PM  
Blogger Steve S said...

Unfortunately, anon, there wasn't a whole lot of saw playing - it was only on the last song, Cosmia, and came right at the end. It was a wonderful way to end the song. The guy who played it had mostly been playing accordion that night.

George - er, Jamie! I do believe that was you. And let me just say, I would definitely buy you a beer - you must have been run ragged. Seriously, though - why not let a line form?

7:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apparently because of The Nutcracker in the main union theater.

9:57 PM  
Blogger Kyle said...

It was a fantastic show, though I thought Bill Callahan was more impressive than you suggest. He was a bit subtle in the distracting context, but I don't think he should be overlooked.

8:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, Bill Callahan was great. I was so happy when Tracy's wooden comment was finished.

6:01 PM  

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