Joan Wasser aka Joan As Police Woman has a warrior saint as her namesake. Her parents named her after Joan of Arc and bringing a solo tour to Australia and New Zealand takes a certain kind of heroism. But it was her utter vulnerability as a solo artist that was her greatest strength at Auckland’s Tuning Fork last night.
This is the coolest way to meet a musical hero, someone who has been trying to get to these shores for 15 years (hats off to Plus1's Kurt Shanks and Lani Purkis for making it happen). And we sure felt special, a show that sold out so quick and such a small venue for this much-awaited artist. As Joan explained “intimate is in, I’m on the cusp of what’s cool!”.
With a seated sold-out house, we gathered around to receive Joan’s To Be Lonely from her 2008 album To Survive. Fragile spare vocals at the keyboard of the grand piano, the fragility of voice paired with Steinway majesty.
To hear this retrospective stripped-down set was to marvel at Joan’s very fine bone structure. Put under the warm-hearted glow of the solo spotlight, these are songs that gleam with invention and beauty.
The setlist comprised of a selection from her latest 2019 album Joanthology, a career-spanning collection with a massive 43 songs. To hear this retrospective stripped-down set was to marvel at Joan’s very fine bone structure. Put under the warm-hearted glow of the solo spotlight, these are songs that gleam with invention and beauty.
Several songs at the keyboard - Wonderful from her 2018 album Damned Devotion tore at us with her self-questioning: "I'm losing these junk souvenirs / What did they do for me / But tangle up my game?" And Warning Bell, these songs are fearless in their sparse and open textures.
Joan is never afraid of slow tempi, never afraid to let vocal sounds hang in the air before she pulls them back inside in a fierce embrace.
Joan is also about sardonic wit. Coming out to face her crowd she picked up her coral pink guitar and tossed her head and laughed. “I’m channelling Tony Danza tonight”. True! In her sleek 1970s black-sheened suit and dark flicked hair, she was really doing the retro look. With long lapels and neck scarf, she could have been a brunette Julie McCoy from Love Boat. Even without singing a note, Joan’s banter is über cool, a deadpan delivery that dishes out truths laced with humour.
There were tear-up moments, her Start of My Heart from her 2008 album To Survive was even better than on the album. A sense of wonder spread through the crowd with every word dropping in its full emotional weight into our hearts.
In the second set, Joan seemed more relaxed and her vocal delivery loosened up and flew. An extraordinary What a World the only ‘new’ song on her 2019 album drew on a more fully sung sound with trademark sinewy expressive phrases.
Another high point was an outstanding version of Prince’s Kiss which showed off her brilliantly virtuosic style. The Magic, arguably her best-known song, in her output was almost a step back again as if she’d used up her emotional energy.
A humorous segue into an (almost-not) encore and a generous long list of thanks brought us reluctantly to the finish. Joan at the Steinway once more with two superb songs The Ride, finishing with Your Song.
A final chance to sit inside her unique R&B echo chamber laced with pain, desire and beautiful wry humour. As the last chord hung in the air there was an audible ‘wow’ in the crowd.
After the show, I don’t know if Joan Wasser received an offer of marriage she hoped for at the vinyl merch table. But even if she didn’t secure her citizenship in Aotearoa, I hope she’s back here real soon. I know she has a home in the hearts of her NZ audience.