Town Hall, NY, 10/13/06
When Jenny Lewis takes the stage, it's a sight to behold. Her fans are numerous and adoring. They greet her with whoops and hollers befitting a true indie queen. However, tonight is an unusual story. It's a far cry from the standing room only Irving Plaza show I'd seen in March, packed to the gills with hipsters screaming as the darling of alt-country took the stage, grinning from ear to ear. This evening is a far more sedate affair.
Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins enter in floor-length satin evening gowns, instantly identifying this as a formal, sit-down show. Perhaps it's out of respect for the venue, Town Hall being a true old grand dame of a theater. In fact, I'm reminded of Ryman Auditorium, and the show that proceeds feels like a performance one might see at that original Grand Ol' Opry theater. It's far more respectful and reverential than the foot-stompin', hip-shakin' show we got in March at Irving's more traditional barroom-esque concert venue. While the audience cheers and applauds, it isn't quite the wild glee and abandon we all feel in our bellies. It's as if we, en masse, expect a hall monitor or snooty aunt to come and scold us if we dare get out of our seats and hoot and holler, like one might normally be compelled to do at a Jenny Lewis show.
While the visual is certainly befitting of the hallowed hall, it is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more formal atmosphere makes for a more staid crowd. Which means Jenny and Co. have an uphill climb in front of them. Without waves of energy from the crowd to buoy them, they are forced to fill the hall with energy all on their own. And that, my friends, can be an exhausting prospect for any performer. The band handles it with grace and aplomb, though I will say that Jenny's ear-to-ear grin is conspicuously missing. She seems to be sweating it out for the applause, rather than lapping up waves of adoration. Which is fine. It simply goes to show her professionalism and that of her cohorts.
The crowd doesn't really loosen up until roughly five songs into their set, when Jenny and the twins are recalled to the stage after a short break by their guitarist, who gives them a "Live, from Vegas, it's Jenny Lewis…" type intro. Their entrance is all 1960s Vegas glitz and glitter, outfitted in the mini-est of mini-dresses, spangled in sequins and shimmering paillettes, and shod in shit-kicker cowboy boots. With her Julie Christie-gone-red hairstyle, she is a bombshell from another era, and the whole place finally feels like we've let our hair down.
Atmospherics and environment aside, this is a helluva strong performance from a trio of admirable pipes and a collection of accomplished musicians. The touring band (Farmer Dave on lap steel, Michael Runion on bass, Jenny's boyfriend Jonathan Rice on guitar, and Rilo Kiley's Jason Boesel on drums) have a bit of the feel of hired guns, rather than being an integral part of Jenny's music making. But this is, after all, a solo project for the Rilo Kiley frontwoman. So we need not expect a one-of-the-band feel from her on this outing.
Farmer Dave, whose lap steel work is smokin', seems to have his own fan club in the audience. Unfortunately, he is also a little too high in the mix, nigh on threatening to drown out the all-important vocals. But the band's real standout is Jason Boesel on drums. Closing out their set with a dramatic performance of my personal favorite, "Born Secular," gives Boesel the opportunity to show his stuff. After singing the sweet gospel strains, Jenny and the twins exit the stage, followed at intervals by Jonathan on guitar, moments later by Farmer Dave, and finally by bassist Michael Runion, leaving only Boesel still playing on stage. He wows us with mad flourishes and crashing crescendos while maintaining the underlying beat like an unerring metronome. As he rises from his kit, the clamor of the audience rises to a roar.
The Watson Twins' voices are soft, supple, and lacking in overstated presence, which makes them an ideal complement to Jenny's personality-packed vocals. Chandra and Leigh's synchronized movements are understated, which saves them from being too trite. It's a nod to the traditional back-up singers of the past, which serves to acknowledge and underscore their role as icing on the Jenny-flavored cake. Together, their harmonies are beautifully balanced, as evidenced by the a cappella show opener, "Run Devil Run." Watch and believe:
Run Devil Run - The Big Guns
Saving the best for last, the real story here is Jenny Lewis herself. Possessed of a clear-as-a-bell voice comfortable in nearly any register, she navigates a multitude of musical styles with ease. Live, her vocals are consistentlyimpressive. Hitting every note square on the head, she conveys every emotion with an undeniably feminine flair.
Her songwriting is accomplished and impressive, while remaining entirely accessible to those who have no desire to look deeper than hooks and catchy refrains. It's no wonder that for the album's only cover, she chose a Traveling Wilburys song. It's that vagabond, campfire-side storytelling style that inhabits many of the songs in her repertoire. By turns honky-tonk road music and gone-to-church Sunday gospel, she can be bawdy or sweet, depending on the story she's telling. And in her more revelatory confessional moments, she holds the listener rapt, digesting every word, as in the album's centerpiece and encore staple, "Rabbit Fur Coat."
Jenny Lewis is that rare combination of spitfire spunk and thoughtful intelligence, who makes the listener want to sing along and actually pay attention to the lyrics, as well. Even more unusual is her ability to take indie hipsters and make them consider listening to country music. And that is exactly why her performance at Town Hall tonight proves, yet again, that she deserves the mantle of Alt-Country Indie Queen that she wears so beautifully.