(May 17, 2015; THE READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)
Arriving late to the venue, seeing the line outside and, later, the crowd inside, this thought kept creeping into my head: “Man… there are certainly more TROOP BEVERLY HILLS fans around than I ever thought possible.” Of course, most of the diverse crowd really had no idea what TROOP BEVERLY HILLS was (if you’re among that group, Google the title… I’ll be here when you get back), they just knew that Jenny Lewis has released some amazing music during her career, including the recent album, THE VOYAGER. I found myself in the midst of some die-hard fans who have been following Lewis’ musical career since TAKE OFFS AND LANDINGS, the 2001 debut release from Rilo Kiley; obviously in the mood for a good time and some great music, my new-found friends welcomed opener Nikki Lane as enthusiastically as they would the headliner later in the evening.
While my first live experience with Nikki Lane had the feel of a last-minute addition to an already announced line-up (it wasn’t exactly that but, it was really close), with Nikki taking the stage in a simple tee shirt and jeans, her opening slot on this tour has the feel of a full-blown Nikki Lane show, with the singer donning an ANNIE OAKLEY (the 1950s television show, not the real thing) style red vest with white fringe, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. That first performance was top-notch but, if you have the opportunity to see Nikki live, this is the Nikki you want. The set didn’t veer too much from last year’s show at the Demo, which really didn’t bother me at all, as the band was tighter and Nikki more aptly displayed the vocal style that has garnered her comparisons to the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson. And, of course, her sly sense of humor and superb songwriting skills sure don’t hurt.
Once again highlighting tunes from last year’s ALL OR NOTHIN’, Lane and her band tore through a set that included “Man Up,” “Right Time” and the title track, all the while trying to figure out why, no matter how furiously she strummed or how hard she stomped her new pedal board, her guitar seemed to be boycotting the performance (eventually, a tech came on stage to fix the problematic plug, eliciting the usual response from Nikki, a self-effacing quip:”Oh… it does work! I thought you guys just didn’t like my playing.”). Other tunes included “Walk of Shame” (the title tune of her 2011 debut album) along with some new material, planned for record number three. In a set full of highlights, the best moment came as Nikki introduced “Sleep With a Stranger,” saying that a couple of friends were celebrating their wedding anniversary and, when she asked what song they wanted to hear to mark the occasion, “they picked this one. That means that they were fucking before they knew each other, because this next song is about fucking someone you don’t know yet. If there’s anybody out there you don’t know yet, you can tell ’em it was my idea.” Nikki Lane is one fierce country wildcat and, with her band laying down a solid wall of sound behind her, she can pack more music, more downright fun into a forty minute set than most artists can muster in a two hour show. Look for Nikki this June at various festivals before she heads out in July with Social Distortion (for full tour info, go to nikkilane.com).
While not as in-your-face as her opening act, Jenny Lewis, nonetheless put on a spectacular – though rather low key – show. One of the ladies I’d been talking to between sets admitted that she wasn’t all that familiar with Jenny’s solo work, but was hoping that she would be dipping into her Rilo Kiley songbook. She didn’t have long to wait; after “Head Underwater,” the funky, folky opener (and the lead track on THE VOYAGER), Jenny and her band stepped back in time to deliver the sparkling pop of “Silver Lining” followed the darker groove of “The Moneymaker,” both from the group’s final album, 2007’s UNDER THE BLACKLIGHT. While the set was, for obvious reasons, heavy on material from Jenny’s latest release, the rest of the set seemed to be packed with some of the more adventurous numbers from her earlier projects, including the bluesy sonic meltdown of “The Next Messiah” and the smokey jazz of “Pretty Bird,” both from ACID TONGUE, as well as some more Rilo Kiley like the pristine alterna-pop of “Portions For Foxes” and the haunting lyricism of “With Arms Outstretched” and “A Better Son/Daughter.” Sometimes, as on the blue-eyed soul of “She’s Not Me” or the country pop of “Just One of the Guys,” Lewis’ wry sense of humor gets lost amid the shimmering vocals and superb backing.
As much as her fans adore Jenny Lewis, seeing her live bears witness to the fact that she genuinely loves her fans. When she smiles or waves, the actions are sincere and heartfelt, giving each person in the room the feeling that this moment was intended for them alone; at one point, she took a flower from her piano and handed it to a young lady, stage right and, even if that’s something she does every single night, it felt special and rang true. When, later, she sat facing her bandmates and playfully leaned back, caressing a smitten young man, stage left, the effect was the same. Was she working the room, playing to the crowd? You bet she was! But, it was still one of the most natural, genuine things for her to do, without ever seeming calculated. She also connected with the crowd when she mentioned going for a walk in the city and finding a peach jumpsuit that she just couldn’t resist at the Goodwill store (there’s a picture of guitarist Michael Bloom modeling said garment here). There were plenty of great musical moments, as well, as Jenny has surrounded herself with a group of players who are adept at virtually any style of music. Bloom acts as musical director and lead guitarist, utilizing massive swaths of sound one minute and delivering a cutting solo the next; his guitar partner, Megan McCormick, keeps the rhythm tight, occasionally exploding for her own sonic assault. The rhythm section of keyboardist Natalie Prass, bassist Thomas Taylor and drummer Josh Adams give Lewis, McCormick and Bloom a spongy, fluid bottom-end to work over, each adding their own little flourishes to the mix. By the way, Jenny can definitely hold her own on, not only guitar, but keyboards, as well.
Other than Nikki Lane, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this show. There was a cool, laid back vibe in the club and the sound was near perfect throughout the evening. Maybe the surprise of the night was the headliner, confident in herself and her band, resplendent in her pastel jacket (with matching guitar), obviously having fun onstage. That’s certainly a great take-away from this show… plus, it’s always nice to make new friends at your job.