To say that Joanna Newsom put on a plucky performance at the Kimmel Center on Friday night would be ... a bad pun.
That’s because plucking strings is how she makes a living as the world’s foremost indie-rock harpist, a distinction Newsom has held since The Milk-Eyed Mender in 2004.
That celebrated debut made her a freak-folk heroine and introduced her as a songwriter of serious distinction whose fans delve into her densely referential lyrics for deep meaning.
But Newsom’s first of two shows at the Perelman Theater — at 600-plus capacity, the smaller of the Kimmel’s two venues, where she was also scheduled to perform Saturday — was also plucky in the sense that it was a spirited success in overcoming unexpected snafus.
In the decade following Milk-Eyed, Newsom released three albums, including the 2010 triple disc opus Have One on Me, as well as acted in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 movie of Thomas Pynchon’s stoner detective novel Inherent Vice.
Since 2015’s lyrical, death-haunted Divers, though, Newsom has been inactive. After giving birth to a daughter in 2017 — she’s married to comic actor Andy Samberg — she said, “I didn’t touch my harp for about a year.”
Friday’s show was opening night on a mini-tour, and Newsom’s first performance of any kind since 2016. Singing in her high-pitched, elfin voice — an acquired taste, to put it mildly — she played both the harp and grand piano, sometimes in the same song.
It was also her first solo show in more than a decade, as she’s played in larger ensembles when touring behind recent records that have gone in for a broader instrumental palette in rendering pastoral tales in baroque arrangements.
(The name of the tour also revealed Newsom — often incorrectly misconstrued as a dour sourpuss because she makes old-fashioned music — to be a playful punster. Referring to her two instruments, it’s called The Strings/Keys Incident, a play on the jam band The String Cheese Incident.)
Returning to the stage after the layoff — in a floor-length flowery dress by California designers Rodarte, she revealed to the delight of fashionistas in attendance — turned Newsom into a bundle of nerves.
The 37-year-old singer apologized for a handful of instrumental flubs on both piano and harp, starting with her first song, Divers’ “Anecdotes,” which uses the nightjar family of nocturnal birds as symbols of love, death, and the passage of time straight out of John Keats.
Newsom had a tough time getting through that one, as she attempted to swing her feet over the piano bench in a suave instrument switch, only to lose her footing in a pile of sheet music.
Later, there was an amusing interlude after she broke one of her towering instrument’s 47 strings: A harp roadie came onstage to do the laborious work of replacing the string while Newsom played the next tune on piano.
None of the miscues dampened the enthusiasm of the audience, appreciative of seeing Newsom in an intimate setting, in a nearly two-hour set that drew from all four of her albums. No new material was played.
Newsom’s music transports listeners into an otherworldly realm. And as a singer-songwriter her use of the harp is no parlor trick, but a dazzling feat that makes use of the instrument’s rhythmic and melodic potential. Turning in an imperfect performance — occasionally sloppy by her exacting standards — only made her more human to her adoring audience.
That said, Newsom’s music is not for everybody. Songs that start with a captivating, hypnotic pulse can grow screechy as she accelerates the pace and moves into her upper register. She’s a cult artist for good reason. But when the music was calmer, and more measured, like when she sang Divers’ existential reverie “A Pin-Light Bent,” the results were stunningly beautiful.