Scratches In The Glass
Johanna Newsom and Alasdair Roberts
Queen Elizabeth Hall. April 2nd 2005
C is a little confused. This is not the usual crowd and not the usual kind of music I might go see. She has a point; with an abundance of cheesecloth and facial hair in evidence, it’s more than a little unnerving. C likens it to being back in Bath in the early ‘90s, a time of ungainly middle class ‘crusty’ drop-out types and hideous crimes in the name of ‘authentic’ folk music. And for sure, the support acts feel like they are trying much too hard to reach for some illusory notion of authenticity. To coin a phrase, it’s a little too trad, dad.

Alasdair Roberts certainly has C in a froth: ‘My grampa used to do stuff like that’ she says, ‘only with more life to it’. And again she has a point. But in spite of the traditional Scots content and delivery, I grow to rather like him. I think the striped bare almost slow-core acoustic delivery is what makes him apart from the norm ­ this is folk music laid bare, taken back to its roots. It’s not full of some jaunty, romanticised re-branding of a past that never existed in the first place, but rather is full of death, despair, loves lost and murdered. Not that I particularly want any part of it in my life beyond the short span of his set, but there you are.

Then there’s Joanna Newsom, as naturally strange and gifted a singer/songwriter as you’ll find anywhere in history you care to look. Apparently mad as a cheese and deliciously precious because or despite of it (it depends on which day you catch me), she’s the kind of artist you can never quite pin down. Sure, some of her songs are populated with the kinds of fairy tale imagery of the most rightly reviled hippy queens of yore, but somehow it’s okay. Somehow it feels Right, and it feels Right because it feels instinctual. Joanna Newsom is like one of those flighty girls who are perpetually forgetting their homework; is one of those girls who toss their hair and disappear in a flurry of dream-eyed visions of unicorns; is a peculiar out of time re-incarnation of pre-Raphaelite beauty standing oblivious to the 21st Century on the steps of monolithic concrete landscapes. She’s apparently out of phase with the rest of the world, but somehow that just throws the rest of the world into sharper focus, She makes the world stop, spin backwards and around on her axis. It’s really quite dizzying.

And of course there’s the harp. On record it lends her songs a quality that harkens back to the likes of Young Marble Giants, and that’s no bad thing. There’s a danger however that it’s going to be her undoing: “Joanna Newsom: the bird with the harp”. Is that all we’ll remember ten years down the line? It shouldn’t be. Certainly the songs transcend the instrument, proven tonight by her spending much of the set at the piano, courtesy of the blisters caused by the previous night’s show in Bristol. They are songs that shimmer and quiver, that swoop like swallows in the July sun, turning on a sixpence and spearing for the heavens on a wing and a prayer. They are songs that challenge and delight, that smooth the rough roads and that leave scratches in the glass.

There’s naturally a creeping temptation to mark Joanna Newsom out as a momentarily fashionable aberration; one of those peculiar conduits that manage to cross genres and briefly connect the worlds of the worthy ‘serious’ music of the academics and the more transitory world of rock and Pop. But she is better than that. She is better than that because she seems to be one of those rare genuine mavericks, one of those artists who will continue to develop in strange and naturally obtuse angles, in or out of the spotlight, simply because they know of no other way. There is no artifice in Joanna Newsom, no studied ‘difficulty’ or academic cleverness. At the risk of coming over all hippy, there is just the sound of a free spirit reaching inside and out for the marks and gestures to explain itself and the world it finds itself journeying through. And I for one am intrigued to see where that journey leads.

© 2005 Alistair Fitchett