Johanna Warren – Live at The Grove – 8/9/15 (Pictorial Review, Live Video)
by Steven Spoerl
Johanna Warren is an incredibly important person to me who has been a central figure in two of the larger undertakings I’ve completed in the past year. The first was her beautiful contribution to the A Year’s Worth of Memories series (one where she detailed the first effort of what was originally going to be the video for “Black Moss” before it became “True Colors“) and the second being a multimedia artist profile for Consequence of Sound that included a photoshoot, a live video shoot, and an extensive interview. After being fortunate enough to take in Waren’s unforgettable, all-acoustic rooftop performance only a few weeks ago, I was more than willing to accept her invite to come to her quasi-release show (one specific to NYC) for this year’s outstanding nūmūn.
Held at a basement venue, the menu for the evening was far more eclectic than is usually covered here and perfectly suited to Warren’s sensibilities. An abbreviated meditation session was given, poetry was read, a mothering station was set up (and very briefly caught fire), tarot readings were available, and there was a bold, intense performance art piece from Gretchen Heinel (one of the directors of the “True Colors” video) involving nudity, white flowers, foreboding music, and a blood bag (which was partially consumed by Heinel herself). All the while, a few other vendors were offering their goods or services and a looped projection from visual artist Elisa Ghs. While it was officially titled a healing fair, the two main draws came in the form of its performing artists.
After Heinel’s incredibly intense performance art piece, Mikaela Davis (a new name to this site) immediately set about bringing some tranquility back to the proceedings. Davis is the kind of performer that exudes a natural grace that can frequently easily lend itself to an inherent magnetism, so I was very close to completely positive I’d enjoy her performance before a single note was played. After she’d set up her harp and made sure that Warren was seated at her harmonium (a recent addition to her live oeuvre), the duo had me frozen with a half-minute soundcheck of a beautifully arranged Elliott Smith cover. In less than a minute, Davis went from a promising prospect to an artist with my undivided attention. By the time her first song’s last notes were ringing out (the only she’d play with Warren and/or a harmonium accompaniment), an audience member succinctly summarized everyone’s reactions with a soft, awed expletive.
That sentiment crept in again and again as Davis’ set progressed, looping through my head with each new movement and figure of her songs. Positioned in front of the projection screen, still looping visuals, the effect was so transfixing that it almost became unnerving. Undeniably beautiful and occasionally deeply mysterious, Davis’ slow-burning songs melted over a hushed audience, all of which knew they were witnessing a rarity and providing it with the according levels of attention. It was a mesmerizing set of songs that has less in common with Joanna Newsom’s work (a frequent comparison that holds some waters but mostly comes up somewhat flat) and falls more along the lines of the likes of Elliott Smith and Priscialla Ahn. As much as I wanted to see Warren perform again, it was impossible to want Davis’ set to end. It did, though, as all good things must, and watching/hearing the closing song was an unforgettable experience- one that ensured that this won’t be the last time Davis’ name is mentioned on this site. Mouth agape, it took me several moments to collect myself, process what I’d just witnessed, and prepare myself for whatever magic Warren had conjured up for the evening.
Before long, Warren was seated in front of the microphone, guitar in lap, ready to launch into a set that drew on nūmūn and new material at a fairly equal rate. “Figure 8”, “The Wheel”, and a handful of others all evoked the same stunned reactions that keep me coming back to Warren’s music and, surrounded by friends, family, and fans, she looked even more at peace than usual. When it came time for “True Colors”, Warren made sure to dedicate it to Heinel and the clip’s other director, Damon Stang, who were seated next to each other, all smiles. Warren’s set marked the third time I’d seen the songwriter perform this year and the performances have all occupied the same space of unshakable quiet intensity but, for whatever reason, “True Colors” came off as particularly alive in the basemen (officially titled The Grove).
As familiar as I’ve come to be with Warren’s work, I’d been keeping an eye on the untouched harmonium throughout Warren’s set, hoping she’d return for at least a song. Finally, at the very end of a characteristically arresting performance, Warren took a seat and began the repetitive motions required to breathe life into the instrument (one of my personal favorites). Titled “There Is A Light”, the song ranks among the best in her discography. Gentle, gorgeous, and reaffirming, it almost comes across as a once-silent prayer pulled out into the world. Instead of feeling voyeuristic, there’s a very welcoming sense found in the song’s radiant warmth- one that likely had more than a few people (myself included) on the verge of tears. As the final lines of the song hit (“Well, we could lie down and collectively seal our fate. You know it’s now or never but it’s never too late.”) and the chords drift off into silence, that silence is sustained. In that moment and the several moments that followed, no one made a sound, collectively drawing out the impact of a perfect ending.
A full photo gallery of the show’s musical acts can be seen below and a video containing some of the evenings performances can be found beneath the gallery.