Joanna Newsom | 11.07.06

At 8:58, after a pre-recital dinner, an elevator with Newsom, her tour manager, soundwoman, one-fifth of her backup band, and a smuggled 18-year-old (me!) descended into the "wonderful, smoky little bar."



  Photo by Todd Owyoung


Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, St. Louis

The Duck Room's marquee outside Blueberry Hill boasted a show banner that no St. Louis venue ever has: "Joanna Newsom – Live Tonight – November 7th – 9:00."

Both Newsom and opener Bobby Birdman took a direct, punk-rock approach to their careful, calculated sets.

At 8:58, after a pre-recital dinner, an elevator with Newsom, her tour manager, soundwoman, one-fifth of her backup band, and a smuggled 18-year-old (me!) descended into the "wonderful, smoky little bar."

The unassuming crowd allowed Newsom to waltz into the dressing room without notice, and out came Bobby Birdman with acoustic guitar in hand. What appeared to the unsettled crowd as Birdman warming up his vocals soon blended into Birdman's first of six songs. The Los Angeles-based solo act captivated the packed house with guitar lullabies that emphasized his strong vocal effort and quirky lyrics.

Birdman's stammering through between-song dialogue was the only bit of normalcy amid his abrupt intro, his psychedelic sound, and his terrific finale that brought the sub-25 minute set to a close. Despite the brief set-up-man duty, Birdman was able to impress the audience and provided more than enough to warm up the already pumped fans.

Newsom limited the suspense by promptly making her way to the harp at 9:37. An elegant red dress replaced her street clothes, and her big smile greeted the eager crowd. Fans searched for the best possible view of Newsom, who was positioned at the far right section of the stage.

The crowd-pleaser and Milk-Eyed Mender opener "Bridges and Balloons" began her set. The lucky fans were then treated to a remarkable "Book of Right-on" performance as Newsom continued to belt out lyrics consisting of every poetic device known to literature.

The performer was in a chatty mood, and the intimate Duck Room induced a nice atmosphere for conversation. She informed us that the third song would be a Scottish traditional, "Ca' the Yowes to the Knowes," and that her band would then play the forthcoming Ys in its entirety.

After the beautiful rendition, five musicians sat in front of an array of instruments to perform the Van Dyke Parks contribution to the release.

The crowd had the luxury of buying the album at the merch table a week before its release. Duck Room attendees who bought the album are especially lucky because they can relive key moments of the show when listening to at home.

The backup band's contributions were streaky, and for a large portion of "Emily," they did nothing but appreciate the song. Even fans paying rapt attention were jolted by the sudden burst of instruments and Newsom's screeching release of the amazing chorus, "And, Emily, I saw you last night by the river/ I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water."

The set was in full swing now. "Monkey and Bear" was perhaps the best live Ys track because of its straightforward storytelling that featured a harmony on the beginning lines, "Down in the green hay/ where monkey and bear usually lay/ they woke from a stable-boy's cry."

What impressed fans, including Beatle Bob (yes, he managed to dance to a harp), was Newsom's recall of lengthy lyrics. I looked forward to seeing how the bands would approach the cameo on "Only Skin" from Newsom's boyfriend/Smog frontman, Bill Callahan. Interestingly, Joanna, who on the album sang along with Callahan, took full vocal responsibility instead of replacing Callahan's vocals with one of the male band members.

When "Cosmia," the fifth and final Ys track, was finished, Newsom thanked the crowd and went off stage. The appreciative crowd erupted and begged for more. When Duck Room lights flashed on, the fans didn't accept the cue but rather cheered all the more, and out came the beaming Newsom. When the crowd hushed, Newsom said, "I don't really believe in encores, but you guys just kept on going." She shyly added, "My first encore."

St. Louis' charm that is recognized nationally among sports teams and performing acts squeezed out two more Newsom hits, "Peach, Plum, Pear" and "Sadie." At 11:04, the show was complete, fans swarmed the merch table and hung around until the bar closed.

As 2006 dwindles, Joanna Newsom makes a strong case for show of the year, and November 7, 2006, will go down in St. Louis history as the best election night ever. | Joe O'Fallon

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