In New Orleans on Friday night, the audience closed the distance that Lewis and her songs put between her and her fans.
[Updated] Jenny Lewis gave the audience at Civic every reason not to invest in her. Her bouffant and gold sequined dress with pink-feathered cuffs begged people not to take her seriously, and that look has become so signature that a drag queen showed up in it and posed for pictures with Lewis’ fans in the lobby. And there was an ease to her performance that bordered on too easy. She sang in “Wasted Youth” from 2019’s On the Line that she “spent it on a poppy” as if what she meant to say was “spent it on a puppy,” with the breeziness to match. That kind of cleverness is central to her songs and her big picture proposition. Everything says, Don’t take me too seriously, but the audience did as audiences do, and they loved her Friday night.
The first sign of the hold Lewis had on the crowd came during the devastating ballad “Happy,” which starts
I'd rather be lonely, I'd rather be free
I'm as sure as the moon rolls around the sea
But I like watching you undress
And I think we're at our best
By the flicker by the light of the TV set
The Friday night crowd went from party time exuberant to dead silent almost instantly with no inappropriate, awkward yells to take the edge off of an emotional song. On 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat, she framed the song as a Loretta Lynn number, using the classic country reference point to keep “Happy” from sounding too confessional. The recording comes with the buzz that accompanies updating an old trope as Lewis acknowledges her “destructive appetites” and her role in this shitty relationship instead of simply struggling to deal with a cheating man.
In concert, her bouffant and white, decorated acoustic guitar nodded to country’s golden age, as did “Happy,” but they were only a few of the network of allusions and references in the set. One moment sounded like a sideways rewrite of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” and Lewis and opening act The Watson Twins finished the set with a cover of The Shirelles’ “Met Him on a Sunday” (which, appropriately for Lewis’ persona, starts and ends a relationship in a week). California rock from the 1970s is a regular reference point in her songs, and although her voice has more Stevie Nicks than Linda Ronstadt in it, they both hover in the background, and many of Lewis’ songs could have come from their diaries.
That referential quality makes Lewis catnip for English majors, but it seems like it should create distance between her and her audience because it’s another mediating level that makes it hard to feel like they know what part of a song is really her. At the Civic, connection wasn’t a problem. The audience was so hot for Lewis than during the sing-along “With Arms Outstretched,” Lewis teared up at how passionately, on-key and on-rhythm people sang. Audience members committed to the song without any of the reservations or irony that are part of Lewis’ presentation as they sang, “It’s 16 miles to the Promised Land / and I promise you I’m doing the best I can.” Their singing plowed through a few of the song’s complications including who is singing to who what their relationship is, but the moment was as beautiful and touching in its own way as the Rilo Kiley original is.
The moment also revealed how Lewis and her songs get over despite all of the stagecraft and musical choices that warn listeners not to get too close. In part, it’s as simple as the material itself. Lewis’ songs have memorable, immediate melodies that are easy to connect to, and her warm, familiar voice is equally easy to love. The songs themselves are also dotted with phrases that jump out of the drama and stand out like talismans and take on lives of their own. “Hollywood Lawn” paints a picture of a relationship reaching its woozy, wasted conclusion in the Hotel California, but the phrase “Keep dreaming” took on a power of its own divorced from the narrative when Lewis sang it Friday. “I’m doing the best I can” had a similar magic in “With Arms Outstretched,” and moments like that were dotted throughout the show. On record, those moments of positive self-reinforcement often play sadly as characters delude themselves into thinking they’ll get out of their shit, but in front of an audience they felt more hopeful, perhaps because people found hope in them. In that context, Lewis’ stage costume and performance shed layers of significance and simply seemed like fun, an idea reinforced by a scenario those who left at the right time saw. After the show, the stage door was open to load out her gear, and in the middle of the open doors was Lewis, still in her sequined dress, riding an inflatable surf toy like a cowgirl. The gesture felt silly. celebratory, and as on-brand for Lewis as songs about dissipation.
Updated September 17 at 9:57 a.m.
The photo from the show at the Civic in New Orleans by Steven Hatley was added after the story was published.