Tuesday's show at the Civic Theatre demonstrated that Jenny Lewis is still one of the sharpest contemporary storytellers
When Jenny Lewis played to a packed Civic Theatre Tuesday night, it was clear she doesn't need an elevated stage to be the coolest girl in the room. The former child actress, Rilo Kiley front woman, and Postal Service collaborator exuded effortless confidence. She didn't have to seduce her crowd because they were already under her spell.
In white lace flare pants and a T-shirt (a departure from the rainbow suit that she wears on her most recent album The Voyager's cover and much of this tour), Lewis was very much the sly, confident rock star, with all the glitz and grit of her Las Vegas hometown. She flirted with the crowd all night--with the eleven-year old girl in the front, her band members, the entire audience--and from the audience, she received a boxed gift and kiss on the hand.
Lewis opened her set on a relaxed, sweeter note, playing some earlier cuts (including the Watson Twins-collaboration "Rise up with Fists!!!") and new tunes from The Voyager. The set began to turn five songs in, however, with a heavy rock version of Rilo Kiley's "The Moneymaker." The song's performance highlighted her ability to make you feel seduced and queasy at the same time. Underneath catchy hooks and sexy rhythms, she sang about dark, heartbreaking scenes - a prostitute, woman whose husband is having a daughter with someone else, someone going through a midlife crisis. All around me, people danced but would sometimes catch themselves after a turn of phrase ("You are the money maker / She is yours for the taking").
Lewis' narratives seem so simple, but she plays with contradictions and complex scenes deftly that her craftsmanship appears effortless. She keeps her narratives interesting by finding a new relegation on each line - she doesn't dwell on any image or action for too long. Her magnetism is highlighted by the sense that she's always one step ahead.
"We're cooking now," Lewis said at one point, with a grin. The thing about Lewis' "cooking," however, is that she doesn't just put the pot on simmer or fire up the oven. She's the kind of musician that has seven things cooking at once, switching between them without dropping anything. One of Lewis' main strengths throughout the night was her ability to switch from one end of the emotional spectrum to another, even within a single phrase - as if the crowd had melted away and she was left alone with her songs.
Perhaps it's a testament to her days acting, but Lewis never pretended to play the part halfheartedly. When she was happy, she jumped triumphantly up and down like a 10-year old given candy. When she was sad, her eyes were wide and on the edge of tears. She hits exactly the right emotional chord at the right time, and knows exactly who she is at any given moment. Onstage, she's not only Jenny Lewis the rockstar; she's Jenny Lewis as a whole cast of characters.
Take, for example, her rendition of "Melt Your Heart," a song she recorded with the Watson Twins. Though at other times in her set, the crowd sang the lyrics along to her classic songs, when she began "Melt Your Heart" with just two singers from her backing band, silence fell on the Civic. Her voice caught at one point, and the crowd watched in reverent attention. A few songs later, she sang a rollicking track from The Voyager based on an experience watching a man pee into his own mouth in Hawaii.
Lewis' longtime boyfriend and collaborator Jonathan Rice (of Jenny and Johnny) has also been on tour with her, and he came out twice to play with the band, playing guitar on a glitzy, soul-rock "Next Messiah" and sang in the band-choir for "Acid Tongue" during the encore.
"On we go friends, on we go," Lewis said close to the set's end. She isn't satisfied with standing still, and the result is thrilling.