Orchestral treat lights up her album’s inner beauty on a dark night for Brit culture

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Joanna Newsom: Barbican Hall, London, Thursday, January 18

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Joanna Newsom: Barbican Hall, London, Thursday, January 18

At 9pm precisely, a door slides open and a woman in sombre charcoal descends a staircase to a charged, expectant hush. Feverishly anticipated and passionately desired, her arrival here in a roomful of breathless critics has been heralded as a night of unprecedented cultural significance – the Event Of The Season. Meekly, she slides on to a low chair as a gripped nation claws the arm of its seat, rapt at what the pig-ugly moron has to say for herself.


And, at the same moment that Jade Goody exits the Big Brother house to the crushing silence of international condemnation and a warehouse full of returned workout DVDs, another door opens and another lady in black traverses a staircase atop a tsunami of expectation. Accompanied, for one night only, by the London Symphony Orchestra (all in matching black tracksuits, some openly chewing – they’re the bastard chav cousin of the Royal Philharmonic), Joanna Newsom’s 12th century orchestral jamboree is The Guardian goatee-stroker’s hottest ticket of 2007. Outside, balcony seats are changing hands for £100 a pop; inside the Economist-reading elite are excitedly wringing out their tear-sodden Baudelaire anthologies at the wistful wonderment of her every pluck. You’d think, from the adoration afforded Newsom by the bookish intellegencia, that Sylvia Plath had appeared onstage with the voice of a chipmunk and a nifty way with a harp.


You might also think that the critical world has gone frigging freeform madrigal folk-jazz mental. Topping the combined list of UK magazines’ Albums Of 2006 run-downs, Newsom’s ‘Ys’ – played in its entirety tonight, in order, is, on first, fourth or fifteenth listen, an elusive pleasure. Five loosely ‘structured’, 10-minute tracks, no choruses, barely an instrument invented since 1468: to the unadoring ear it’s a medieval Kate Bush with ADHD, flitting from half-melody, to aimless Beatrix Potter-ish interlude, to random orchestral crescendo, like she’s having a psychotic fit while locked overnight in Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. In The Dark Ages she’d have been burnt as a witch for conjuring ungodly time signatures, but best album of 2006? Over Karen O’s writhing, spasmodic body…


It starts, confusingly, like an Elfish Liv Tyler galloping out of Middle Earth, late for a rehearsal for the last night of the Proms. ‘Emily’ leads us on a melodic goose-chase between a stricken boat trip in a Virginia Woolf novel, a hobbit drum circle and a bit where Newsom rants rather prettily about the media being a bitch. Then we spend a good 10 minutes playing a pleasant enough game of Hunt The Tune with Elizabethan clarinet fable ‘Monkey & Bear’ – imagine someone taping over Watership Down with the video for ‘Babushka’.


So far so hippy-dippy picnic music, but then the LSO break open a family pack of Wrigley’s Extra Ice and leave Joanna to glide through a gripping solo ‘Sawdust & Diamonds’ – her harp a glittering waterfall, her voice a butterfly’s wing, and your writer suddenly a writer for Fey Cliché Express.


Suddenly, the hypnotic wash of the strings beguile and seduce and, rather than desperately grasping at brief flushes of coherent tuneage for sustenance, you realise that ‘Cosmia’ and the 17-minute (!) ‘Only Skin’ consist of the spirits of all the best dead tunes, and Newsom is simply leading us through their incorporeal mists; a snatch of madrigal pop here, an Irish cult jig there, what sounds like God’s own remake of the shower scene from Psycho hither and thither.

While it’s a relief to return, in the half-hour encore, to the three-minute Magnetic Fieldsian classical wonk-pop of first album ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender’ (‘The Book Of Right-On’, ‘Sadie’; sprightly breezes compared to the dense fog of ‘Ys’) it’s also a mere sop to the pop masses. Tonight Newsom has ascended from the Regina/Devendra ranks of New York kookstrels to the top table of High Art. The Chapman Brothers are no doubt working on a sculpture of her shagging Jade as we write. They’ll call it Luminosity And The Beast.


Mark Beaumont