Jenny and Johnny at the Cedar, 9/12/10
September 12, 2010
The Cedar Cultural Center
Even though she gave up movie work more than a dozen years ago to pursue music in earnest, Jenny Lewis in a sense remains an ambitious actress, her sound and shape shifting with each album. Over the course of four albums with L.A.'s Rilo Kiley, Lewis morphed from a low-impact vocal wallflower that clearly had a lot of Bettie Serveert records in her closet to a full-throated diva capable of convincing Southern gospel. Seriously, listen to her get down on "Silver Lining" from Rilo Kiley's 2007 swan song Under the Black Light and then go back and listen to 2000's Take Offs and Landings -- rarely has a singer sound so transformed. Subsequent solo albums found her indulging in winsome folk-pop (2006's Rabbit Fur Coat) and -- arguably ill advisedly -- rough and tumble roots music (2008's Acid Tongue).
Sunday night the pair rolled into town to play for a surprisingly packed standing-room only crowd at the Cedar Cultural Center flanked by longtime Lewis drummer Jason Boesel and a guitarist referred to only as Tiko. Wasting little time, the band dived directly into the heart of their lone album, with Lewis rocking the bass and handling harmony vocals for the opening salvo of "Scissor Runner" and "Committed" and Rice's hangdog croon doing his best to carry the load on lead. While there's nothing wrong with Rice's everyman vocals, their facelessness was underscored as soon as Lewis took over lead vocals on "My Pet Snakes."
Whether opting for an intimate conversational delivery or letting it rip, Lewis' lightly twangy voice enthralled. The same pattern followed throughout the rest of the main set, with the energy in the room clearly going up a notch whenever Lewis was center stage - taut New Wave nugget "Big Wave" in particular appeared to have the capacity crowd rapturous. While Rice's sleepy bullfrog harmonies brought little to Lewis' tunes he did seem to find sturdier footing towards the end of the night, his world weary voce more suited to shuffling folk-rock numbers like "Switchblade" and "Animal" than the rock rave-ups he attempted to pull off at the start of the set.
Sheepishly admitting to the crowd that "you caught us at a transitional time, we need to write more songs," the band's main set was just 50 minutes long, with 10 of those minutes eaten up by an extended bluesy work up of Lewis' "The Next Messiah" that went nowhere fast, and then stuck around slow. Things got back on track for the encore, with a rousing impromptu performance of "Carpetbagger" spurned on by a shout of "More songs" from the crowd when it appeared they would be closing out with just one cover tune. The cover came right after of course, an acoustic take on "Love Hurts" whose stripped down arrangement only served to make the disparity between Rice and Lewis' vocal talents all the more apparent.
More a promising project than an actual band at this point in their arc, here's hoping Jenny & Johnny keep having fun - they've got a solid half dozen insidiously catchy songs under their belt in the early going - but also write more songs before they try and get away with a headlining gig in the Cities again.
Critc's bias: Really enjoyed Jenny Lewis' solo debut, 2006's Rabbit Fur Coat, found 2008 follow-up Acid Tongue to be an unfocused and overly bluesy disappointment.
The crowd: All the people too young and well groomed to care that Pavement was playing a reunion show at the same time.
Overheard in the Crowd: "More songs!" (From a fan seemingly irate that Jenny & Johnny appeared ready to wrap up their encore after just two songs and less than an hour on stage total. Ultimately ended up getting them to play an unscheduled impromptu rendition of "Carpetbagger")
Random notebook dump: Rice made an awkward joke about cutting his hair to donate it to penguins affected by the Gulf Coast Oil Spill (and it still looked long!)
Total Set time: 70 minutes
(4 minute encore break, 5 minute break as Jenny and Johnny debated playing "Carpetbagger")
New Yorker Cartoon
My Pet Snakes
Just Like Zeus
Straight Edge of the Blade
End of the Affair (Johnathan Rice solo tune, performed as acoustic duo)
One of the Guys (new unreleased Jenny Lewis song)
The Next Messiah (extended blues jam)
Love Hurts (acoustic duo)