About 25 minutes into Joanna Newsom’s headlining set at End of the Road, in a pause between a ten-minute fairytale song about the origin story of Ursa Major and a sea shanty that uses a historical voyage as a metaphor for the theory of relativity, Newsom squints at a note gaffered to the stage. “I’d like to wish a very happy birthday to, er, Sue - Sue Corr - who’s 70 today and has come to the festival every year,” Newsom announces, warmly. She smiles, “Happy birthday Sue!” A cheer and a half-arsed round of Happy Birthday ensues, before we’re plunged back into Planet Newsom’s heady atmosphere, and joviality is once again replaced by the pitter-patter both of rain on umbrellas and of fingers on harp strings.
For all the slightly disconcerting incongruity of a birthday shout-out to a pensioner in the middle of a Joanna Newsom set, the moment is also a quintessentially End Of The Road one: a charmingly quotidian expression of civility and friendship surrounded by something gently magical, both offered and received with quiet grace. But perhaps it figures that we should reach peak End Of The Road with Newsom. After all, there’s a sense that the entire weekend had been leading up to this one: during her slot, all other stages have been closed, leaving her wild, winding ghost stories to drift across a hushed site on the wind, resembling as much siren song at distant bars as they do baroque virtuosity from the front row.
And that sense of occasion works terrifically. For all her studio delicacy, there’s a meatiness to Newsom The Festival Headliner: her epics are fleshed out with thundering percussion and an even greater dynamic range, while her gentler songs carry and unexpected fizz that helps project them to a crowd and space far larger than her music would usually suit. Not that it feels forced, though: it’s perhaps a testament to Newsom’s musicality that despite the extra amplification, her songs’ romanticism and their strangely sad, heroic nature persists.
Most winningly, though, Newsom makes her performance a communal one. Throughout, the Californian repeatedly apologises for the inclement weather that her audience is enduring, promising to help them forget about the drizzle if she can. The apologies only serve unwittingly to draw yet further attention to the soggy ground underfoot; her songs, however, are a masterclass in transportation.