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Harpist Joanna Newsom steals avant-folk show with luminous set at The 5 Spot

Harpist Joanna Newsom steals avant-folk show with luminous set at The 5 Spot

Vetiver, Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, a trio of ambassadors from San Francisco's folk music underground, played Wednesday night at The 5 Spot in East Nashville. Vetiver's performance was an homage with strings to influences like Nick Drake, Tim Hardin and Marc Bolan by way of Banhart, who would join them later in an encore "family jam" that also included Newsom. The group, who had to endure an indifferent, chatty audience, are still seeking their voice; at this point, their music is more an assemblage of influences than an assimilation of them. Banhart's work in particular looms over the band's sound and can obscure the contributions of singer and banjoist/guitarist Andy Cabic, which tend to be subtler and hard to discern in a noisy room.

A lot of people paid good money to talk while Vetiver played, but Newsom shushed them with her incredible set, which opened with a clap-along stomper sung without amplification. Newsom has been called "an Appalachian Bjork," and sonically the comparison works, even if it's a bit reductive and Bjork's brittle electronics are replaced with pointillistic harp bursts. Newsom's critics charge that her voice is "an affectation" and that Bjork's is "natural," but that's not really the case. What appear to be affectations in Newsom's vocals instead are sung inflections of her writing voice, which possesses the compressed humor of an A.B. Spellman script and the tautness of a Gershwin or Fats Waller tune. Newsom also elevates the harp's reputation, forsaking endless glissandi for spellbinding melodic wit.

Surprisingly, Banhart was the evening's disappointment. Not only did he fail to build on the energy of a rapt audience, many of whom came to see him play, he also seemed to be phoning in his performance—or worse, lampooning himself in the role of a latter-day merry prankster. Banhart often is a great live performer, and he's certainly a galvanizing figure in the new folk scene. But the songs he did last Wednesday consisted largely of new arrangements of older material, or of old lyrics quilted into ambling folk backdrops. Nevertheless, the crowd's enthusiasm indicated that even on an off night when he is over-emoting in a fibrillated Tim Buckley-inspired vent, Banhart is capable of capturing a room's attention.

—Chris Davis

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