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Saturday, February 23 , 2019, 10:25 pm | Fair 45º


Jeff Moehlis: Hats Off to Joanna Newsom and Robin Pecknold

A showcase of the folk music of today and tomorrow at the Lobero

During Joanna Newsom’s concert at the Lobero Theatre on Friday night, we learned that when her band recently went to the movie, Inception, percussionist Neal Morgan slept through the entire film. When he asked Newsom at the concert about what happened in the movie, she sarcastically joked that the plot is “really straightforward and easy to explain.”

One might argue that Inception is like Newsom’s music — it is not straightforward nor easy to explain. Some people might even fall asleep during it. But to her fans, who packed the Lobero, the music is a true delight.

For the unfamiliar, Newsom’s music rests on two pillars: her folk-tinged harp playing and her unique singing style. One detects some similarities to the music of Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos, but perhaps the most apt point of reference is the somewhat-obscure and underappreciated British folk singer-songwriter Roy Harper. (Harper is best known from the title of Led Zeppelin’s “Hats Off To (Roy) Harper” and as the guest vocalist on Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar,” but has also recorded many solo albums.) In particular, Newsom has cited Harper’s 1971 album, Stormcock, as an important influence on her songwriting. Indeed, Harper and Newsom share a penchant for epic folk music with nontraditional song structures and somewhat cryptic lyrics, giving songs that are enjoyable to listen to but which you’re unlikely to find yourself humming afterward.

Most of the evening’s songs were drawn from Newsom’s ambitious new triple album Have One On Me. This included the opener “‘81” featuring just Newsom on harp and vocals, after which she he was joined by her band — Ryan Francesconi on guitar, tambura, kaval and recorder, who is responsible for the arrangements on her new album; Morgan on drums, percussion and vocals; Andy Strain on trombone; and Mirabai Peart and Emily Packard on violin and vocals — for the new album’s mesmerizing title track and the remainder of the show.

Also on the program from the new album was “Easy,” with it’s abrupt mood changes, the more conventional “Soft As Chalk” with Newsom on piano and Morgan’s all-over-the-kit percussion, the reflective “Autumn”, the medieval-tinged “Kingfisher”, the encore “Baby Birch”, and “Good Intentions Paving Company,” which hit a rare groove during the trombone solo.

Newsom also visited some of her older material, in particular “Monkey & Bear” from her lavish 2006 freak folk favorite album Ys, and a few tracks from her 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, namely the musically more straightforward “Inflammatory Writ” and the main set-closing “Peach, Plum, Pear,” with a particularly pretty harp outro.

The evening’s opener was Robin Pecknold from Fleet Foxes, whose 2008 self-titled debut album is rightly heralded as one of the best of the first decade of the 21st century. In case you missed it, when the Fleet Foxes played at UCSB in April 2009 a particularly perceptive critic (Disclosure: It was me. Click here for the review.) described their music as “the sound of the Beach Boys hanging out in the mountains; Crosby, Stills & Nash sipping coffee with vegan creamer instead of doing cocaine; Amazing Blondel playing for the iPod generation instead of the Renaissance Faire.”

At the Lobero, the refreshingly modest, Earl Grey-sipping Pecknold covered “Look Down That Lonesome Road,” then showcased a small collection of great new songs that one assumes — and hopes —will end up on the second Fleet Foxes album. Most had a similar vibe to the Fleet Foxes’ first album (although, being alone, Pecknold obviously couldn’t capture the Fleet Foxes’ lush harmonies), and one favorably reminded me of Paul Simon’s “Kathy’s Song.” Intriguingly, Pecknold has also cited Harper’s album Stormcock as an influence on his new material. (Hmmm, advice to future folk music stars: listen to Stormcock! Not a bad idea for everyone else, too.)

What a joy to have two of the most exciting and talented young musicians on the scene today pay a visit to our town.

Setlist for Joanna Newsom:

Have One On Me
Go Long
Inflammatory Writ
Soft As Chalk
Good Intentions Paving Company
Monkey & Bear
Peach, Plum, Pear
Baby Birch (encore)

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.

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