Joanna Newsom, Roy Harper at Palace Theatre, Manchester, 18/09/2010

I wasn’t sure whether or not I would enjoy this show – I’d really enjoyed Joanna Newsom’s first album (The Milk Eyed Mender), but didn’t enjoy her second (Ys) as much since I preferred the more simple arrangements and shorter song lengths on her debut. I enjoyed the Ys Street Band EP for the same reason. I haven’t even attempted to listen to her latest triple LP, whose sheer length scares me. However, I thought I’d say “yes” and give this a go. This was also my first visit to the Palace Theatre, despite eight years of going to shows in Manchester.

My friend somehow managed to procure excellent seats – front row of the circle, dead centre. Unfortunately I left my camera at home thinking they wouldn’t allow photos (however, some people took them, to the annoyance of Joanna). The theatre is really nice and quite amusing. Like many a theatre, legroom is limited but you are allowed to bring your drinks into the venue, they have girls selling ice cream in the interval (although only in the stalls, so I missed out).

Apparently Roy Harper is a legendary folk singer, born in Rusholme and with a song on Led Zeppelin III dedicated to him. I didn’t like his singing much. Or his between song banter. However, he sound in the Palace Theatre was first rate. Probably the best I’ve ever heard at a gig. His acoustic guitars (he alternated between one in open D and one in standard tuning) sounded excellent. Bright, twangy, and with a nice deep bass. His vocals were too loud in the mix though. I managed to enjoy his set by concentrating on his guitar playing which was very enjoyable, although sometimes a bit repetitive.

The crowd were really up for Joanna Newsom, participating in much between song banter. Turns out Joanna was drinking hot honey and lemon, and later on, Isklur Norwegian Glacial Mineral Water. She also seemed to spend a long time fiddling with things (like tuning her harp or adjusting her mic stand) before hopping off to another instrument. She seemed to alternate between harp and piano, and had a backing band of a percussionist, trombonist, two violinists and a guy who played a multitude of guitar-like instruments and who had done all the arrangements. The violinists and trombonist sometimes added backing vocals which was very welcome. In general though, I wasn’t a fan of the arrangements. For the first half of the show it was like – here’s a few bars of novelty trombone, then half a minute later – here’s a few bars of novelty guitar, and so on for all the instruments. For the second half of the show they did tend to all play together more often, which was much better. The percussionist was less of a drummer, and liked to experiment with hitting odd bits of his kit and rolling his tambourine along the floor. He tried (and failed) to keep the crowd amused whilst Joanna was tuning her harp by listing all the Roy Harper albums he owned. He also exclusively drunk out of some weird pickle jar. Note that I am only commenting on what the artists drunk because the crowd kept asking the band between songs, and Joanna was in a talkative mood. I have to add (if only because she mentioned how everyone mentions it) that she pulls weird faces whilst she sings – constantly. The group managed to play a good mix of songs from all three albums, although, especially given the length of the songs, missed out a lot of each individual’s favourites.

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