It's early in the current Red Rocks season, but the marvelous venue's most unusual 2007 show may have already taken place. The May 15 date featuring Icelandic sprite Björk and harpist Joanna Newsom offered the sort of challenging music that wouldn't be expected to draw a throng. Yet the rows along the Rocks were damn near full, and those who braved a misty, mildly chilly spring night were rewarded by performances that were filled with adventurous arrangements and artistic daring. While neither set was flawless, even the rough patches were intriguing.
Newsom's latest disc, Ys (co-produced by Van Dyke Parks), was among the finest and most singular recordings to emerge in 2006. The music, though, is so delicate, ornate and precise that it cries out for an intimate venue, where listeners can soak in every note while feeling as if they're an audience of one. Red Rocks doesn't qualify, and Newsom was clearly intimidated by its size and scope. Before her first pluck, she told those assembled that this was the biggest crowd she'd ever seen with "the pink side" facing her -- an odd but endearing turn of phrase.
Fortunately, nerves didn't impact her time on stage. Accompanied by a drummer, a violinist and a banjoist/string expert, she launched boldly into hugely ambitious works such as "Monkey & Bear" and "Sawdust," which each contain roughly the same number of words as a set of encyclopedias and move through multiple passages with an internal logic that's as unquantifiable as it is lovely to behold.
If Newsom's main influences are rooted in English folk, they're not her only ones. Portions of "Emily," a ten-minute-plus opus, kept threatening to resolve into Bruce Springsteen's "Spirit in the Night." But if the musical elements weren't wholly original, the way she combined them most certainly was. Granted, the affectations that are part and parcel of her vocal style were on display throughout. Yet she was pitch perfect despite the challenges of singing and playing such a mammoth and physically demanding instrument at the same time.
Not everyone was willing to absorb the results; there was plenty of talking throughout her portion of the show, which made it tough for those who wanted to stuff their ears with something other than random conversation. By the end, however, Newsom had won over a far bigger slice of the throng than anyone could have expected. Who knew there was such a big demand for first-rate harpistry?
Of course, Björk boosters are more willing than most to embrace the unusual -- and the headliner provided just as much of it as she did in her 1995 interview with Westword. The stage area was festooned with modified medieval standards that gave the backdrop a stark, ancient look that was brightened considerably by the presence of ten female horn players wearing bag-like duds in primary colors. Björk stayed away from earth tones, too, opting for a ruffled rainbow peasant dress that made her look like a gleeful child at a fiesta. She may be 41, but she's never lost touch with her inner kindergartener.
Her efforts opened as does her latest CD, Volta -- with "Earth Intruders," an environmental excursion whose tribal elements were even more emphasized live than they are on disc. The track was co-written and co-produced by Timbaland, who's remade the likes of Nelly Furtado. But because Björk is a much stronger artist, the song feels like a product of her vision, not someone else's -- and thank goodness.
That said, "Intruders" was less effective than it should have been due to a muddy mix that took until mid-set to improve. Usually, the opening act is stuck with lousy sound. This time, Newsom benefited for crystalline sonics, while the more rhythmic Björk excursions -- the ones dominated by traditional drumming supplemented by an array of electronic aids -- suffered from a lack of clarity that intermittently swallowed her reliably round, ripe vocals. The pacing was also a bit off, with the likes of "Venus as a Boy" (from her Debut album) slowing things down just when everyone wanted to amp them up.
In the end, fortunately, Björk found a balance between older material such as "Hyper-Ballad" (one of three tunes she plucked from 1995's Post) and Volta numbers that are just as impressive as their predecessors. "Wanderlust" was transformed into a sweeping travelogue, "The Dull Flame of Desire" worked just as well as a solo vehicle as it does as a duet between Björk and Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), and "Innocence" electro-stomped with aplomb. Perhaps best of all was "Declare Independence," which served as a thematic link between the primitive pounding that began the proceedings and post-rave dance culture. The web of green laser beams that lit up the sky during this last aural celebration seemed to epitomize the preternatural connection between Björk and her fans.
If there are more shows this interesting at Red Rocks this year, it'll be a season to prize. -- Michael Roberts