Joanna Newsom. For the uninitiated, for the 17 of you left who've yet to catch one of her densely packed concerts at our local Hemlock Tavern or pick up her masterful debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, Joanna Newsom, aka "Harp Girl" (as she is commonly referred to around town), plays -- three guesses now -- the harp. Sounds funny, I know, makes you think of Glinda the Good Witch and all that, but as the throngs of converts who've seen her will tell you, Newsom takes playing the harp and singing her sweet, lapidary lyrics far beyond the realm of the normal singer/ songwriter. Her sound is cosmic and artful, yet based in the simplest folk traditions; her shows mix the best parts of a campfire singalong and a Southern diva's juke joint revue. It's for that reason that many of us here have grown to consider her nothing short of a local treasure, and why I was pulling my hair out at her SXSW appearance.
First of all, Newsom played at the Blender Bar, a venue sponsored by the music magazine offshoot of Maxim; presumably someone thought that the same crowd that likes checking out half-naked Jessica Simpson pictures would be into some Appalachian folk songs. Second, she played upstairs, which meant you could hear, for her entire performance, close to every note of the raucous butt-rock band playing on the first floor below. Third, and most disturbing, more than half the crowd would not shut up. Even the lumberjack frontman for psychedelic rockers Davis-Redford Triad was yammering away (and you thought it was just journalists and label people who were inconsiderate). In other words, despite Newsom's best efforts, there were all these X-factors that made the show kind of suck.
While it stinks to admit it, the clamor and chaos provided some insight into what the next year holds for Newsom: It's going to be an uphill climb. "One can only poke oneself in the ear with a knitting needle so many times before unconsciousness sets in," wrote the Austin Chronicle about her album in a review published the day of the SXSW show. That piece and the atmosphere of the Blender Bar were extremely disheartening for those of us who expected Newsom to just be shot, slingshot style, into the open and loving arms of the world outside San Francisco. It seems this will not be the case.
There was, however, a bright side: To watch her deal with SXSW was to understand that Newsom is up for the challenge. During many a tune she pugnaciously pounded and pulled on her harp's strings; when she needed to, she raised her voice, but never so much as to obscure its wistful qualities. In "Sadie," her most beautiful song, her melodies managed to sooth the audience into silence just long enough for her spry, whispered voice to send out the lines, "This is an old song/ These are old blues/ And this is not my tune/ But it's mine to use," like a kid pushing a paper sailboat out into the ocean, which is a metaphor that works both for that lyric and for Newsom herself as she embarks on her first substantial national tour later this month.
One thing Newsom has always taken issue with is the fact that many critics (myself included) tend to view her as a child, her lyrics as the musings of a naive, starry-eyed moppet (despite the fact that they sometimes contain more $5 words than a page of Foucault). Clearly she's a grown-up, and during her turbulent set at SXSW, she proved it.
The other thing I'd like to tell you is about a man named Kris Kristofferson and a certain local record-label owner, Nick Tangborn, whose esteemed Jackpine Social Club imprint put out a Kristofferson tribute album two years ago.
Truth be told, I'd never been a huge fan of Kristofferson. I knew he was a prolific songwriter, responsible for writing countless tunes made into hits by other artists, but with the exception of "Me and Bobby McGee," I didn't really know what tunes those were. (I just broke Rule No. 1 of music writing: Never admit you're not omniscient.) What I did know were two things: that the guy had starred in a ton of crappy movies, from Millennium to Blade; and that he was among the very small handful of artists whose records my dad still kept in a box up in the attic. (Short digression: I remember as a young boy climbing up there on occasion to sneak peeks of the sexy LP sleeve for the soundtrack to A Star Is Born, which featured Barbra Streisand and Kristofferson locked in a steamy embrace. Please don't repeat that.)
Anyway. At 6 p.m. on Saturday, while seated amongst a handful of hipsters in the bar of a posh hotel in Austin, I get a call from Tangborn, who informs me that Kristofferson will be playing an ultra-secret show at a small club, the Continental. "Whoopee," I think to myself, looking around for a waitress to bring me another martini. I thank Tangborn for the tip, tell him I'll try to make it, and hang up.
"You guys wanna go see a secret Kris Kristofferson show?" I ask my drinking buddies. Unanimously, they answer, "No." I call up some friends and ask the same question. One of them actually laughs at me.
But strange things happen to a person when he starts drinking at noon, and so two hours later I'm standing next to Jason Lee, the actor, in a club half full with maybe 50 people, counting the minutes until Kristofferson goes on, not because I can't wait to see him, but simply because it's getting late, and Dizzee Rascal's playing in a bit; so is N.E.R.D. And I love N.E.R.D. Finally the MC shows up, quiets the crowd, and preps us for what we're about to see: "Every once in a while, South by Southwest does something special," he begins, and before I know it the dude who starred in Millennium is taking the stage.
In the time it takes to sneeze, the room is transformed. Suddenly SXSW is no longer the hippest place to be, no longer a fashion convention or a drinking contest, no longer a gathering place for know-it-all journalists or celebrity rock stars. It's just a place. And this is just a bar. And Jason Lee is just some dude (with a funny haircut). And that man up onstage -- who is responsible for this switcheroo -- is plainly and wonderfully just some other dude, only a dude with a guitar and a harmonica playing the simplest, sweetest melodies I have ever heard in my life. Dried-out songs like "Me and Bobby McGee" are rehydrated by this man; he's like that charmed weirdo who picks up the dead hummingbird and zaps it back to life: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose/ Nothin' ain't worth nothin' but it's free."
Did you hear that? I want to shake Jason Lee and ask. He's totally on to something!
Throughout his 45-minute set, Kristofferson never does more than pluck a few notes or play a few chords. His vocal range is sparse; the guy can barely sing. But he owns this stage. I cannot tell you why lines such as this one, "Then I crossed the empty street and caught the Sunday smell of someone frying chicken/ And it took me back to something that I've lost somehow, somewhere along the way," make so much sense coming out of Kristofferson's mouth, but they do. Across town, dozens of trendy bands are playing next month's anxious, noisy hits, songs I'll no doubt fall in love with and sing the praises of. But for the time being, Kris Kristofferson is reminding us all that two-chord meditations can still be rapturous. As my dad asks when I call to tell him about the concert, "Why don't they write songs like that anymore?" And for the first time in countless years since he's been asking that question, I know what he's talking about, even if I still don't have an answer.
The best part of the set, though, is about halfway through, when I look over at Tangborn to hand him a Budweiser. After at least a dozen years in this business, having held almost every music-related job there is, from label owner to music editor to college radio DJ, it's fair to say that Tangborn has seen it all. But on a warm night in Austin, this 6-foot-3, sideburn-wearin' man is crying big fat tears of joy. Like a sloppy, happy baby.
The feeling was contagious. It was just that kind of show.