Squawking, as a Symptom

By Dandi MengMay 21, 2024

Squawking, as a Symptom
THE STRINGS/KEYS REINCIDENCE: A RESIDENCY WITH JOANNA NEWSOM, The Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever, May 15–19 + May 26–27, 2024.

The first sound I heard on Thursday night was the warble of a peacock. It felt a little on the nose to pull up to a Joanna Newsom function at a cemetery-cum-ritualistic-lodge-space, only to step out and be greeted by several of the most ornate fowl on God’s green, grave-studded earth. I had been to Hollywood Forever many times before, but I had never encountered those squawkers. They felt like plants—paid actors in the lush, baroque scenery of Newsom’s world.

The cemetery’s Masonic Lodge was filled with hushed anticipation. My friend and I had arrived 45 minutes before showtime and the seats were already packed. I counted exactly four other people of color in the audience, one for every peacock I had seen outside. (I have always been susceptible to cults, you see.) It hadn’t been easy to worship at this particular altar—despite the run of shows scheduled for May, the venue was small, and the demand for tickets overwhelming, especially after Newson’s last Los Angeles dates had been canceled in 2019. Still, by some stroke of standom luck, here I was, sitting in a room of 150 other people who had probably all either considered (me) or actually committed to (me soon?) getting a peach, plum, pear tattoo at some point.

The long, puff-sleeved gown with pastel stripes Newsom wore made it was clear she wasn’t trying to beat the twee allegations. She strummed and played and sang with the open delight of someone reuniting with lifelong friends. The room burst into applause when she transitioned seamlessly from “Time, as a Symptom,” the last track on Divers (2015), into “Anecdotes,” the album’s opening song, accompanied by indie legends Amber Coffman and Robin Pecknold. Someone stood up and tipped their cowboy hat at the stage with nary a trace of irony.

Despite frequent characterizations of her voice as childlike and untrained, Newsom’s singing has always appeared quite deliberately effortful to me. When she performs, she often contorts her lips into wiggly shapes, as if caught on a fishhook, extruding each note with evident force. At this show, the exertion was even more palpable than usual. She occasionally strained to reach the highs and lows that round off her signature yelping half yodels; at several points throughout the night, she paused, grinning sheepishly as she tried to find the right chord on her harp or piano, or to recall the lyrics of a particularly verbose song. Yet for her devoted audience, these warbles came off less as unfortunate errors than as precious insights into Newsom as an enfleshed being, unmediated by the YouTube scrim through which we had experienced her for the past too-many years.

Before closing out the night with “The Things I Say,” one of the shortest songs in her otherwise long-winded oeuvre, Newsom asked if we had seen the peacocks outside the venue. “It occurred to me,” she went on, “that it sounds like they’re making fun of cats.” She took a beat as everyone chuckled, then launched into her best imitation: “Like, MRREEEEEOOOWWWW.”

I have to say, that was not what those birds sounded like at all. But, for better and worse, a key part of being a Joanna Newsom fan is the studied abandonment of verisimilitude, or maybe of reality altogether. I wonder if the lodge is accepting any new members.


Photo by contributor.

LARB Short Takes live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.

LARB Contributor

Dandi Meng is an editorial fellow at Los Angeles Review of Books. Her writing can be found at Annulet: A Journal of Poetics, Jacket2, Hot Pink Magazine, and Poetry Northwest, among others.


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