Joanna Newsom @ The Tivoli, 04.03.2011

 First published on Collapse Board, 13.03.2011

Ironically, after the self-inflicted debacle of photographing Roxy Music earlier in the week, I get a second chance to make amends for a previous photographic misdemeanour, in the form of Joanna Newsom, who’s playing at The Tivoli for the second time in fourteen months.

The last time she played at the venue, back in January 2010, I arrived after she’d already started and ended up photographing what was left of the first three songs from the middle aisle, taking a load of photos with the microphone across her face in the process.  I learnt my lesson and this time I make sure I arrive early. Based on that last experience I already knew that the best place to photograph her would be from the right-hand balcony and so sit upstairs near where I need to position myself.  It is definitely the best place to shoot from, although being on the far side of the balcony, right against the wall does give me more of a side on view than I would have liked.  As well as being the best vantage point, I do also get to gaze down at the two other photographers who are pacing up and down at the front of the stage, obviously trying to work out how to take a photograph of her without a microphone obscuring her face, and know how they feel.

Although I’m much happier with the photos, in retrospect I wish I’d changed sides and taken some photos of drummer (and support act) Neal Morgan and her trombonist as I couldn’t see them from my vantage point.  When processing the photos I also came to the realisation that they weren’t as good as I’d first thought, with the unoccupied chair in the background being a bit of an eyesore.  I guess that’s something to work on next time she plays at The Tivoli.

As for the gig itself, it’s stunning and reminds me that for some unknown reason I hadn’t listed her last show in my gigs of 2010.  It’s such a refreshing change to go to a gig and have the audience absolutely silent during the songs; she’s totally spellbinding so it’s not really a surprise.  She sings so beautifully and together with the five-piece band, the sound is breathtaking.  I’m not sure if it’s quite as good as last year’s gig, even though the songs from Have One On Me, which made up a sizable proportion of last year’s show, were as-then-unreleased and being heard for the first time.  With the January 2010 show being the start of the album tour I think we might have been spoilt, as we got a longer set, more songs and two encores.  Either way, there’s not much between them and the March 2011 show should still be making the best gigs of 2011 at the end of the year.

One final thought that tonight’s gig makes me reflect on is the state of Australian female music.  Late last year (in a yet to be written blog) I saw Sarah Blasko play at QPAC and receive a standing ovation at the end of the show.  At the time I was perplexed as to why the audience had deemed it worthy of a standing ovation; I mean, as far as gigs go it was fairly average and nothing special (and not helped by the imposing nature of the venue).  Tonight was so jaw-droppingly exquisite, a performance of true beauty that it was more than worthy of the standing ovation it received.  Thinking about Sarah Blasko then gets me thinking about the Australian Music Prize (AMP), the 2011 award having been given to Cloud Control the previous evening and last year’s award  having been received by Lisa Mitchell, to much controversy.  When you see something as good as tonight you really start to consider just how average a lot of the music coming out of Australia really is, whether a female artist like Joanna Newsom could come from Australia, whether they’d be promoted by the Australian media, whether their music would be deemed “too difficult”, whether they’d be accepted by the Australian public, whether they could thrive.  What are the chances that Lisa Mitchell’s next album have only 5 songs and only one will be under nine and a half minutes?  Will Sarah Blasko fourth album be a triple album? Are Julia Stone or Washington going to come up with a 17 minute song that’s mainly instrumented by harp and strings next time around?  Are all of Australia’s female singer-songwriters of the generic, formulaic, radio-friendly variety? Is anyone doing anything differently, really pushing themselves creatively, producing really exciting work?

But anyway, 2011 has been a fantastic year for gigs so far and Joanna Newsom can’t come back soon enough.

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