Sydney Festival Review: Joanna Newsom – Sydney Opera House (21.01.16)

This week’s Sydney Festival performance from Joanna Newsom marked the third time the acclaimed US artist has performed in the iconic Sydney Opera House, and her first time on our shores in five years.

Her first ever performance in the Concert Hall was back in 2008, when she performed her second record Ys in full with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – also as part of the Sydney Festival. It was a spellbinding, magical performance that has stuck with me ever since. Eight years – and two albums – later, the supporting four piece may have seemed a step down from her venue debut, but the sound they produced would argue differently.

Focusing on her latest record Divers, though parading through songs off all four of her records, Newsom and her quartet sounded phenomenal in the room – showing that a stage full of strings will always trump a rock band in the room’s acoustics. It wasn’t all perfect – the odd feedback and on stage mix seeming to cause some problems for the artists – but it did little to take away from the stunning performance that they delivered.

Joanna Newsom_SF 2016_credit Prudence Upton 075

Opening with “Bridges and Balloons” off her debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom jumped between the Grand Piano, her iconic harp and the keyboard, as her quartet added in the drums, violins, banjo, recorders (the first instrument they all learnt, Newsom quipped), and whatever else they needed to bring to life the wondrous orchestrations of Newsom’s discography.

“Peach, Plum, Pear” also fell from her debut and was well received by the crowd – the first record obviously still holding a special place for many in the room. For me, Ys remains my favourite of her material – likely much in part to the wonderful experience I had in the venue eight years prior. “Emily” – my favourite of her material, a track that admittedly brought a tear or two to my eyes – and “Cosmia” – were both kindly included in the set, in spite of their collective 20+ minute length.

But the star of the night was Divers, whose material sounded exceptional with her band and in the surrounds of the venue. Many have suggested the record shows the artist at the peak of her artistic skills – and they’re likely not wrong. From “Anecdotes” to “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne”, the music takes everything she’s done to date and delivers it in the most polished, most impressive form yet. Sure, it’s missing some of the whimsy and youthful charm of her earlier material, but it’s like comparing Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel to Bottle Rocket. One is an artist trying to discover their voice, and the other is an artist who has very much found it.

The night ended with two tracks off of 2010’s Have One on Me, “Go Long” and “Baby Birch”, which saw the audience add their hands to the music – giving us all a few goosebumps to leave with along the way.

Amongst a world of copy-cats, Newsom’s music has always stood on its own as both original and magical material. Lyrically splendid with arrangements that can take your breath away, in the live environment the artist shines, and warrants all the acclaim – be it through standing ovation, or an article like this – that comes her way. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take her another five years to reach our shores, or release new material. Her parting words suggested the same desire.

Bridges and Balloons
Soft as Chalk
Waltz of the 101st Lightborne
Have One on Me
Peach, Plum, Pear
Goose Eggs
Leaving the City
Time, As a Symptom
Go Long
Baby Birch

Photos by Prudence Upton / Sydney Festival


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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.