A cross between a sweet little girl and a wizened crone, Joanna Newsom sometimes sounds like she's singing her dark fairy tales to herself—it's as though she's been entranced by her own stories. Her uncanny voice can sound simultaneously babyish and witchy, and her harp playing (yes, I said harp) is hypnotic. The instrument is pretty much the only adornment for her wild-eyed lyrics, a gorgeous frill on the tattered prairie dress of her vocal melodies. The first time I played her debut CD, The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City), I had to pause it several times because the lump in my throat got too painful. Even a zillion listens later, "Sadie," Newsom's tribute to her dog, still makes me break down. She opens for Devendra Banhart, a weirdbeard of the first water till he shaved his off: born in Texas in 1981 and raised in Venezuela, he was a ramblin' man by 18 and a semifamous eccentric by 21. Though both he and Newsom play similarly sparse music, he's much more focused: while she drags her harp by its hair over the peaks and valleys of her songs, Banhart sings more like he's walking a long trail and keeping time with his footfalls. On his second full-length, Rejoicing in the Hands (Young God), his dusty-cowboy vibe is less giddyap than whoa Nellie; his quivering high tenor lopes about a half second behind his shucked-bare fingerpicked guitar. I don't understand what either of these folks means all the time (sample Newsom lyric: "The sight of bridges and balloons / Makes calm canaries irritable"), but I feel like I get it anyway: When you hug someone real tight, it's not always to show them how much you care; sometimes you're reminding yourself of your own capacity to show emotion. Likewise, their tunes are serenades, but not to anyone else. Vetiver opens; Newsom plays second, and Banhart headlines. $10, 18+. Sunday, June 13, 8 PM, Bottom Lounge, 3206 N. Wilton; 773-975-0505 or 800-594-8499.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Pete Newsom.