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Newsom wraps her elfin voice around a rapt audience

You couldn't buy what happened at the Museum of Fine Arts Thursday night. No, really, you couldn't. It was free for students as part of the MFA's popular College Night.

More than that, it was the kind of brisk fall night where everything comes together perfectly. In a courtyard, nearly 400 students sat cross-legged on the ground as trees cast shadows around them under a cloudy but placid sky. As they filed in with giant handfuls of free cookies from a table inside, everyone listened intently to Chris Brokaw's acoustic opening set. Anyone who dared to chat was quickly shushed as if in a New York theater.

By 10 p.m., all eyes were on Joanna Newsom, the avant-folk wunderkind who is six weeks shy of shedding her underdog status with the release of her highly anticipated new album, ``Ys." She gave the audience a preview of the album, playing four of the five new songs, but she also gave a performance that acknowledged just how idyllic the setting was.

Even with the NEMO music festival in town, this was a coveted show. By 8:45 p.m., some 2,000 students had clogged the MFA's hallways, many in search of tickets to see Newsom, others looking at the exhibits, noshing on free food, and checking out a DJ in an adjoining room.

Newsom began with a preface that soon sounded irrelevant: She was sick and had worried all day that she wouldn't be able to perform. Sipping a concoction of lemon and honey, she wasn't sure it was helping, but she sounded just fine as her elfin voice carried through the courtyard over the buzzing din of crickets.

The audience was rapt, the kind you rarely see (but wish you did) at a rock show. After all, they were among the first to hear Newsom's new songs live, though many of them might have already heard them when the album was accidentally leaked online last month by Pitchfork.

But to hear Newsom play these new songs live gave them a Spartan vivacity that's occasionally obscured on the album. Van Dyke Parks's sprawling orchestral arrangements (full disclosure: I heard the whole album when it was leaked) are beautiful, but it's hard to keep up with so much going on in these lyrical epics.

Accompanying herself on harp, Newsom yelped, wailed, whispered, and set her own sporadic rhythm on songs from her debut, including crowd pleaser ``Peach, Plum, Pear," ``Bridges and Balloons," and ``Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie."

``This one's really long," she cautioned before playing ``Only Skin," which elicited chuckles from a crowd that had already been primed for such endurance.

``Cosmia" -- with its plea of ``in the lissome light of evening/ Help me, Cosmia/ I'm grieving" -- proved these new songs are ready to make their debut. Clearly, Newsom's fans are ready to hear them.

James Reed can be reached at

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