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In brief: Joanna Newsom at the Sanders Theatre

Joanna Newsom, "Emily," live at Town Hall in New York, March 18.

Joanna Newsom tunes her own harp.

I found this fascinating for some reason. Shouldn't someone of Newsom's stature - she's niche for sure, but still popular enough to sell out Harvard's Sanders Theatre on St. Patrick's Day - be able to outsource such mundane tasks? Is it tough to find a harp tuner on short notice? Does she not trust anyone else with the job? Whatever the reason, there she was before the show tuning away - and the amusing thing was that for a good thirty seconds or so, everyone remained silent and watched. Newsom is such a compelling performer that she can captivate a room just while tuning her instrument.

On stage Newsom is all giddy enthusiasm, chatting with the crowd and smiling warmly. Her manner was a bit of a contrast from the generally mournful tone of her recent triple album, Have One On Me, from which most of Wednesday's set was drawn. She started with the spare "Jackrabbits," completely engrossing and powerful in the relative intimacy of the Sanders Theatre (which is big, but every seat is really close to the stage). When Newsom sings, her mouth twists in both directions into a weird sneer, and her eyes occasionally grow wide as though she were explaining something to a small child. I don't know anything about how one plays the harp exactly, either, but watching Newsom's fingers move across that thing was impressive. It's fascinating. "Jackrabbits" was also the last time in the night that she would perform without the rest of her backing band, which included Have One On Me collaborators Ryan Francesconi (guitar, mandolin, banjo, flute) and Neal Morgan (percussion - mostly tapping on the rims of his drumkit). The band ably recreated the intricate arrangements of the new album, from the jazzy second half of "Soft as Chalk" to the Celtic, New Age-y "Kingfisher." The title track absolutely slayed, particularly the choral "oooh-OOOH"s towards the end. Newsom's encore of "Baby Birch" was also very sweet and lovely.

But for as great as the new stuff sounded, I still couldn't help noticing that the standouts on the evening were the older songs she played. "The Book of Righton" was welcome for its easy digestibility. It was also the only song to get an applause break when it began - though this may have been a quirk of the set; all of the other songs started on Newsom's voice and it made sense not to interrupt that with any noise. "Emily," the clear highlight, was the only song where the band had noticeably reworked the recorded version's arrangement. Strings dropped out more frequently, emphasizing Newsom's staccato harp plucks. The climax added percussion to the din, creating a genuine feeling of catharsis. It made the song feel like it had more of a narrative arc than you might expect.

None of which is to say the new stuff sounded bad or anything like that. It's just that, for as much as I've been enjoying Have One On Me, it's sometimes a little too massive for its own good. In other words, because there's so much for the average listener to take in, I still haven't completely digested everything that's on it. I still don't know what half of these songs sound like from memory. As a result, it was hard to rightly get excited about parts of her set simply because the level of familiarity wasn't there. She played some songs ("Easy," the title track, "Soft as Chalk") that I had managed to make a connection with in the weeks since its release, but also a few (like "Autumn") that I hadn't yet. At the same time, I can't really begrudge her for song selection; the band is still getting used to these songs too, just like we are as listeners. When someone requested "Good Intentions Paving Company," she responded with "we're getting there." She then realized what she'd said. "I mean we're almost at the point where we can play it live, not in this set. Several cities down the line, maybe. What a horrible thing to imply!"

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