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.


JENNY LEWIS: THE VOYAGER

(WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS; 2014)

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Jenny Lewis literally grew up in front of America. She was only nine years old when she made her first television appearance (in the TV movie, SUBURBAN BEAT). The first thing I ever saw her in was the 1989 big-budget Shelley Long (of CHEERS fame) comedy, TROOP BEVERLY HILLS; it wasn’t a huge part for Jenny, but it was obvious that she had that something special… even at 13 years old. As she got older, she was showing up less on the screen, slowly transitioning to a career in music. In 1998, she formed Rilo Kiley, a band who were destined to become indie darlings. She released an album with the Watson Twins in 2006 and her first true solo album, ACID TONGUE, in 2008. After the release of I’M HAVING FUN NOW, an album recorded with her boyfriend, Jonathan Rice, Jenny’s life headed into a rather drastic downward spiral. Her father passed away at the end of 2010 and Rilo Kiley broke up a few months later. These two events led to intense bouts of insomnia and emotional upheaval. As a coping mechanism, Jenny began writing again. Now, almost three years later, we finally have THE VOYAGER, a cathartic, thought-provoking collection that, through the shimmering sound, a very vulnerable soul is laid bare.

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: AUTUMN DE WILDE)

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: AUTUMN DE WILDE)

THE VOYAGER is produced, primarily, by Ryan Adams, it’s the team of Lewis and Rice who helm the folk/dance opener, “Head Underwater.” The song has a certain ebb and flow and the sparkling production perfectly highlights Jenny’s vocals. “She’s Not Me” is sort of an ’80s pop/R and B thing that would have demanded a video which would have been placed in heavy rotation on the MTV. Even though the tune has a smooth and easy feel (no doubt like the other woman in the song), it’s basically a smackdown by a scorned lover. Speaking of videos, “Just One of the Guys” (check it out below) features Jenny and a bunch of her friends (including Anne Hathaway, Kristin Stewart and Brie Larson) playing dress up and trying to mimic typical macho men; obviously, they don’t even come close but, then, maybe that’s the whole point. By this point of the album, a certain thematic thread seems to developing: Jenny Lewis, now heading toward 40 (geez… how old does that make YOU feel?), is starting to hear the ticking of her biological and reproductive clock. Amongst the psuedo-psychedelic country vibe of the Beck Hansen-produced song are the lyrics, “There’s only one difference between you and me/When I look at myself, all I can see/I’m just another lady without a baby.”

A different kind of psychedelia (“A slippery slope/Mushrooms and coke”) seems to drive the next track, “Slippery Slopes.” The guitar has an almost metal feel which offers an odd juxtaposition with Lewis’ silky smooth voice. “Late Bloomer” is a rockin’ country thing with lyrical allusions to Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side,” without the cross-dressing and transgender references (as far as I can tell, anyway). The third and final non-Ryan Adams produced (it’s another by Jenny and Johnny) song, “You Can’t Outrun ’em,” is a weird, watery sounding piece with bizarre Gothic country overtones.

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: AUTUMN DE WILDE)

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: AUTUMN DE WILDE)

The New You” is quiet little rocker with lyrics that conjure images of a person trying to find themselves or, worse, a person in complete denial regarding their own identity. The tune segues into “Aloha and the Three Johns,” a song with an intriguing bass line, a shimmering guitar and an unreasoning disdain for Hawaiian songs. Jenny’s voice is particularly crisp and punchy on the track, another one of those retrospective things about relationships and fear of commitment. The intro to “Love U Forever” features a take on one of the greatest riffs of all time: That infamous Dave Davies (and, yes, it IS Dave, not Jimmy Page… how do I know? Well, Dave once told me, “Don’t you think that if I could blame Jimmy for that piece of crap, I would? It was me. All me.”) guitar signature from “You Really Got Me” actually repeats throughout the song, generally as a bass riff. The tune also features a great vocal melody line, as well. It may be my favorite track on the record. “The Voyager” closes the album. It’s a rather dreamy thing about getting to the place you want/need to be in your life (no geography involved) with minimal instrumentation. It’s gauzy feel is the perfect album closer. I guess misery begets beauty, but I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Even if it did result in another record like THE VOYAGER.