JENNY LEWIS/NIKKI LANE

(May 17, 2015; THE READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

Jenny Lewis set list (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Jenny Lewis set list (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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).

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Jenny Lewis with Megan McCormick (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Jenny Lewis with Megan McCormick (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.


DETROIT COBRAS/PUJOL/NIKKI LANE

(June 12, 2014; THE DEMO, Saint Louis, MO)

The Detroit Cobras Saint Louis Poster by James Bratten

This is my first sojourn to the Demo on Manchester Avenue, in the Grove section of the city (which has turned into something of a “Music Row,” with what seems to be a couple dozen live music venues). With a capacity of 200, the Demo is what is known as an “intimate room.” That term also connotes the friendly atmosphere offered by Jake Snyder and his knowledgeable staff. Ben Schulte, the production manager, goes above and beyond to guarantee the best sound possible, insuring a positive experience for both patron and musician. The musicians on this night’s vintage-style anything goes bill is the hard-working rock ‘n’ blues party combo, the Detroit Cobras, the punky Pujol and the real-deal country of Nikki Lane.

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Nikki Lane, in the midst of her first headlining tour, opted to open for this show rather than go up against the proven might of the Cobras. I’m glad she did! By doing so, she has insured that the next time she plays the Lou, the fans will turn out for her. Nikki’s set was short, but very sweet: Three tunes from her just-released sophomore album, ALL OR NOTHIN’, a couple from her debut (2011’s WALK OF SHAME) and a cover of Tom Petty’s “Saving Grace.” Her backing band – they’ve dubbed themselves “Team Thunder,” a name that Nikki abhors – are a well-oiled machine… just wish I woulda remembered to get names! The guitar player, in particular, impressed with a myriad of styles, from hardcore country twang to chugging blues riffs to over-the-top psychedelic soloing. And, let’s not forget the lead singer in the band: Nikki, two albums into what should be a very successful career, certainly commands your attention with her singing (thanks in part, I’m sure, to her deft songwriting talents) and her between song quips and intros. A great set that has me counting down to her next Saint Louis date.

Pujol (Daniel Pujol) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Pujol (Daniel Pujol) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Shifting gears completely, Daniel Pujol and his band (the creatively named Pujol) offered an entirely different view of the Nashville music scene. Daniel’s songs and arrangements are a few cuts above the standard punk sound that you’re likely to hear on any given night at just about any club in the country. Aside from Daniel’s (and his guitar cohort, who’s name I didn’t get) continual shredding (and occasional harmonic duets), the set’s focal point was at the back of the stage: Tiffany Minton was a diminutive dynamo, keeping the beat with arms flailing and her kinetic energy driving the songs at an almost breakneck speed. Pujol’s interesting vocals – kinda like Geddy Lee on helium – were, unfortunately, somewhat lost in the mix, causing a few in the crowd to miss the nuances inherent in his lyrics. The power and musical acumen of the group, thankfully, nullified the problem.

The Detroit Cobras (Dale Wilson and Richie Wohlfeil) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Detroit Cobras (Dale Wilson and Richie Wohlfeil) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Rachel Nagy, the Detroit Cobras’ powerhouse vocalist, was ready to rock ‘n’ roll. The band blasted through a long set of classic R and B and rock songs, with Rachel front-and-center and longtime band mate, guitarist Mary Ramirez, holding things down on stage left (right in front of improbable scenester and local pain, Beatle Bob). Stage right was occupied by Mary’s guitar counterpart, Reuben Glazer, and bassist Dale Wilson; holding the beat was Richie Wohlfeil, doing more with a simple kit (and a cut in the palm of his hand) than most can accomplish with a set that would make Neil Peart envious. For some unknown reason, the crowd was slow to warm up to the hard working, hard partying vibes coming from the stage, not really getting into the groove until the fourth song, a rare original, “Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat).” That’s something that I’ll find myself pondering for some time to come… all the while basking in the glow of my very first Detroit Cobras show.


NIKKI LANE: ALL OR NOTHIN’

(New West Records; 2014)

NikkiLane-AllOrNothin-ADA

On her sophomore release, Nikki Lane steps up her game with the help of producer (and primary songwriting partner for ALL OR NOTHIN’) Dan Auerbach. The record is filled with plenty of girl power tunes, a couple of “get-even” tunes and even a submissive, “Stand By Your Man” kinda tune; all of them with a sense of fierce urgency that tells you that Ms Lane is not to be trifled with! In short, this ain’t no Taylor Swift fluffy pop country; she’d kick Taylor’s butt! Heck, she’d probably win an over-the-top-rope wrestle royal with Lucinda, Courtney, Miranda, Christina, Neko, Exene, Beyonce and just about any other Diva you could name (except those Blues ladies… nobody messes with them!) That estimation is borne out on the opening track, “Right Time,” a snotty (in a good way) girl power song with a twang and a pedal steel guitar. There’s no doubting who’s in charge with lyrics like, “It’s always the right time/To do the wrong thing.” “Good Man” is a cowgirl group thing, with Spector-ish “Wall of Sound” drumming and glockenspiel a-plenty. It features a more refined vocal twang and restrained pedal steel. The girl group comparison continues with “I Don’t Care.” The song comes off the starting block like “London Calling,” but the vibe quickly coalesces into something closer to the early, angry Elvis (the only Elvis that matters, not the dead fat guy). The organ, acting as more of a percussive instrument, propels the song forward as much as the bass or drums.

You Can’t Talk To Me Like That” is a languid, plaintive country ballad. Aside from a great vocal from Nikki, the track also features an organ part that reminds me of Al Kooper’s work on Dylan’s HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED. And, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. With a PETER GUNN or a private eye movie soundtrack kinda vibe and a cool Tijuana Brass horn chart, “Seein’ Double” is all atmosphere, something rare for that kind of music. On “Love’s On Fire,” producer Auerbach joins Nikki for a real live, honest-to-goodness June and Johnny, Tammy and George, Dolly and Porter country duet. The song begins with minimal accompaniment but, a little over a minute in, it turns into a full blown country barn burner. “All Or Nothin’” is what the First Edition would have sounded like if Thelma Comacho or Mary Arnold sang lead instead of Kenny Rogers. It has a chugging rhythm with great percussion, organ and guitar, particularly the psychedelic solo that plays through to the fade. A driving rock beat and plenty of drawl and twang make “Sleep With a Stranger” a good “get-even” tune, with snark-laced lyrics like, “This would be a good night/To sleep with a stranger.” Lucinda and Neko would definitely approve. The snaky guitar and pedal steel leads add to the snide charm of the track.

Nikki Lane (photo credit: CHUCK GRANT)

Nikki Lane (photo credit: CHUCK GRANT)

Man Up” is another hard-edged empowerment song: “You better get off your ass/You better man up/Or I’m gonna hafta be/The one that gets tough.” It’s kinda like the traditional country that was making the rounds and gaining popularity in the late ’70s and the early ’80s, but with tougher lyrics and more adventurous instrumentation. Jason Pierce (J Spaceman of Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized) is the co-writer on “Out of My Mind.” The tune has more in common with Pierce’s Spacemen 3 work, but with a solid pedal steel lead and a plaintive vocal from Nikki. Fiddle, piano and acoustic guitar add to the lilting country feel. The next track, “Wild One,” would not sound out of place on the first New Riders of the Purple Sage album, with the pedal steel referencing Jerry Garcia’s playing on that record. The rolling bass and nice organ sound highlight an understated vocal performance… a performance which is almost staid compared to the rest of the record. “Want My Heart Back” is a great update on the early ’60s pop sound, with piano, guitar and echoey drums (requisite tympani included) that are reminiscent of the Cascades’ “Rhythm of the Rain.” While ALL OR NOTHIN’ is an upgrade over her excellent WALK OF SHAME debut, the best material here is the stuff she co-wrote with Dan Auerbach. Hopefully, this is a creative team that will stay together for a while. With Lane and Auerbach together, I’m not sure how much better we can expect record number three to be, but I sure can’t wait to find out!