Nevada City's own singer-songwriter-harpist-actress Joanna Newsom filled the Crest Theatre Tuesday night with her supple, weaving voice and the sort of epic compositions that have turned her into an idiosyncratic indie folk-pop sensation over the past dozen years.
In front of what she called a hometown crowd, Newsom played the ever-smiling host who, once seated behind her Prince William Concert Grand harp, effortlessly broke into runs of rhythmic countermelodies and warbled crooning that soared and swooped - at times changing moods in a snap.
The 34-year-old musician has a virtuosic talent, her fingers flying across both the harp and piano. At times, her singing was a dead ringer for British chanteuse-sorceress Kate Bush in her early years and at other times slid into blue notes that suggested soul, bluegrass and Alan Lomax-era Appalachian folk tunes.
Joining her onstage were her equally well-rounded brother Pete Newsom on piano, drums and keyboards and sister Emily Newsom, an astrophysicist by trade, who played cello, recorder and sang backup. The band also included guitarist Ryan Francesconi and two other singers who at times played strings and recorder.
Newsom began the roughly 90-minute set recalling her early days as a girl trekking to the "big city" of Sacramento to catch shows at the Crest. In the audience, she said, were many of her hometown friends, including her childhood harp and music teachers.
Since those times, Newsom has earned more real estate in the pop heavens than your typical harp-plucking folk singer.
Her four albums, and in particular 2010’s “Have One on Me,” have built her a sizable following with famous adoring fans such as author Dave Eggers. She’s worked with veteran orchestrator Van Dyke Parks, musician/producer Steve Albini and other collaborators.
She also has branched out into acting, appearing in 2014’s noir “Inherent Vice” by director Paul Thomas Anderson. On top of that, she’s the distant cousin of California gubernatorial hopeful Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. And she’s married to comedian/actor Andy Samberg, of “Saturday Night Live”/The Lonely Island/“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” fame.
Most of her songs clock in at more than five minutes, which means they probably aren't for rock diehards who need hooks and guitar riffs. The compositions sound more like tone poems sung in a stream-of-consciousness voice that can go childlike, arch and breathlessly confessional.
To the irritation of some, Newsom isn't afraid to squeak and squawk even during quiet moments, as if she's straining to reach some inner nugget of storyline. But there's no doubt that she can do pretty much anything she wants with her voice.
Tuesday's highlights included "In California," an eight-minute piece that recalled both Woody Guthrie and Joni Mitchell, with its melancholic line: " While I wait all night, for you, in California, watching the fox pick off my goldfish from their sorry, golden state."
The night reached a shimmering peak when Newsom dueted with Fleet Foxes singer/songwriter and opening act Robin Pecknold on the tender "On a Good Day."
The not-quite-sold out house didn't need much convincing to get behind Newsom. "You're mystical!" a woman yelled at the stage at the start of the show. "You have a nice soul!" another followed.
When the singer hit her stride, with the harp and violins and vibrato in sync, it was easy to fall into her mystic, many-voiced spell.