As promised, Jenny Lewis's excellent Friday night show at the Observatory delivered a few surprises. Before the end of the second song “Run Devil Run,” she was joined onstage by the Watson twins, a duo that's been acting as a smaller supporting element in some of the former Rilo Kiley frontwoman's solo work (although height-wise, they absolutely dwarf her).
Fans know the identical sirens for the gospel-style backing vocals they provided throughout the entirety of Lewis's debut solo album, 2006's Rabbit Fur Coat. In the wake of the collapse of her former band, Lewis has most recently been focused on work recorded with her beau Johnathan Rice, who joined Lewis and the twins onstage Friday night.
But the biggest surprise (or not) were the several Rilo Kiley songs Lewis and her backing band, played throughout the evening. It all began with the song “Silver Lining” off 2007's Under the Blacklight.
The mostly acoustic arrangement saw the normally mid-tempo song played at a slower clip with Lewis emphasizing every hooray, ooh and ah. The smoldering feel of this and other songs such as “You are What You Love,” seemed to imbue the words with new meaning.
Lewis' voice, both crystalline and warm, sang “You are what you love, not what loves you back,” then after a brief pause to survey the crowd, she flashed a smile and sang “I guess that's why you keep calling me back.”
In addition to allowing Lewis' resonant vocals to shine, the sparse arrangements made space for the keyboard and lap steel guitar, played expertly by Farmer Dave Scher, to fill the spaces with surprising lushness.
Though dainty in a red skirt and school-girl saddle shoes, Lewis was a force. The low key vibe of the acoustic material was upended at the end of several songs when she raised the neck of her guitar and punctuated each tune with swashbuckling flair. Though the sound skewed towards Bob Dylan, the swagger and confidence of of Pete Townsend was at constantly simmering beneath the surface.
Even when Rice flubbed the opening false harmonics of “Portion's for Foxes” forcing a false start to the song, the set felt seamless. This consistency was due in no small part to Lewis's abilities as a performer which are either god-given, honed by years in show business or both. This aura drew attention from any minor mistakes.
Commanding multiple instruments effortlessly, she leapfrogged from acoustic guitar, to bass to the keyboard. But her technical skill was secondary to the je ne sais quois she brought to the stage.
Alternating between fierce and genuine, shy and soulful, Lewis exuded confident sexuality, never sacrificing her humanity in the process. And halfway through the set, she wandered to the sides of the stage to make contact with fans waving, smiling and reaching out her hand. But the best thrills sprang from her solid catalog of songs, many of which featured soul-bearing narratives involving the traumas of childhood, love and life in a band.
One of the best demonstrations of this resounded with the evening's most unexpected number, “A Better Son/Daughter” off Rilo Kiley's 2002 album The Execution of All Things. In the expletive-laced jam, Lewis roared “Sometimes when you're on, you're really fucking on, and your friends they sing along and they love you. But the lows are so extreme that the good seems fucking cheap and it teases you for weeks in its absence.”
Perhaps conditioned by how we view former child stars, and the Hollywood machine in general, questions linger as to how a person can bare so much of their soul and maintain their sanity in the process. Is Lewis's multifaceted stage persona a genuine attempt to connect with a wide audience, or did being born into a showbiz family headed by warring parents teach Lewis how to be all things to all people? Is the whole bit just an impressive Hollywood illusion? If so, it's pretty fucking convincing. Ultimately it's one of those ironic questions that only serves to add to Lewis's intrigue.
Whatever the case, Lewis is complex, compelling and highly entertaining. It's no surprise she keeps crowd coming back.
Critical bias: I'm a huge Jenny Lewis fan…there, I said it.
The Crowd: Lots of couples. This was the ultimate date concert. There were also lots of girls rocking cowboy boots.
Overheard: “I love you Jenny” from the crowd's males. “I love you more,” she shouted back.
Random notebook Dump: Security was provided by a thuggish gang of large men wearing shirts emblazoned with the words “Massive Security.” They aggressively dealt with fans who tried to take pictures with phones by flashing lights and green lasers in audience members' faces. One guard even put his hand over one guy's face to obstruct his picture taking. I don't know about the rest of humanity, but I've had enough of venues who utilize uniformed gangs to brutalize customers who've paid good money to see a show.