July 28th 2019
Over a decade on from the demise of Rilo Kiley, and on the back of her finest solo album, Jenny Lewis is finally the confident, dazzling and utterly magnetic performer that those of us who have followed her from the beginning knew she was destined to become.
Jenny Lewis arrives on stage tonight resplendent in a semi-beehive hairdo and a shimmering fishtail gold and emerald dress – sequins that take issue with the stage lights and send dazzling and indiscriminate patterns around the intimate walls of Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music. She stands up on a box to command the audience, she slinks elegantly round the venue, she never once stops dancing. This is her space; we are welcome to visit so long as we enjoy and reciprocate. From shy indie pixie to 50s icon, the transformation in the way she holds herself is in many ways indicative of the about-turn that Lewis’s career and music has taken over the past decade. And tonight, on the back of her finest solo album to date, tonight she is a frontwoman of supreme character, quality and effortless class.
The aforementioned album – the magnificent On the Line – forms the backbone of tonight’s set. She opens with the same double-punch that we find on the record itself, first a tumbling, windswept and melancholic ‘Heads Gonna Roll’ and then into the glorious Doo-Wap sorrowful elegance of ‘Wasted Youth’ (still for me the finest single of the year thus far). There is a richness and a maturity to her voice these days – bound up in emotion, heartache and the lived experience. ‘Little White Dove’ is seductive and breathy, but a cursory listen to the lyrics tells a different story of “a mother and child emergency” and hints towards Lewis’s oft-fraught relationship with her late mother – a constant theme of the new album. ‘Hollywood Lawn’ is both measured and epic in scale – never giving itself fully up until the final chorus. ‘Party Clown’ showcases her unique ability to tell sordid tales and skim along the bottom of the dirty carpet, all the while keeping a unique sense of humour and bohemian bafflement. And the devastating end-of-relationship melancholy that infuses ‘Dogwood’ is amplified in the confines of the venue; so much that we feel we are listening to someone sat next to us on the piano – spilling their words and their wine in an attempt to make sense of the situation.
Elsewhere, we get three songs from her superb and oft-underrated 2006 album Rabbit Fur Coat with The Watson Twins – a delicate ‘Happy’, a Nashville train-rhythm ‘The Big Guns’ and the Stax-esque ‘Born Secular’ together with an exquisite ‘See Fernando’ from 2008’s Acid Tongue record. Her band are sublime: supplanted by a three-piece string section for several tracks and always effortlessly excellent and economic in their playing – providing the sinewy and multi-layered platform to let Lewis and her voice take flight. During ‘Little White Dove’ a multitude of balloons are released into the audience which results in a contest between audience, band, singer and (at one point) sound engineer to either pop them or keep them going. But all eyes remain on Lewis – confident, resplendent and in the finest form of her life.
She is funny and erudite in her stage banter – at one point asking the audience to turn and make friends with the person next to them, including introducing herself with an unsuspecting fan in the front row. The whole thing carries the elegance and delicate fortitude of a performer absolutely sure of herself and her music. And right at the end, to bring things to the most magical conclusion, we get a nod to where it all began with an utterly mesmeric and devastatingly poignant version of Rilo Kiley’s ‘With Arms Outstretched’. At the close of the song, Lewis steps away from the microphone and into the centre of the arena – conducting us all in hushed and choked whispers as she imparts the words “And some days they last longer than others / But this day by the lake went too fast” acapella to the crowd. With just her and her guitarist in this tiny venue, the song takes on the most wonderful depth and emotion – the hues of sorrow and time floating around our heads. And she is correct. Only it wasn’t “that day by the lake that went too fast” – it was the hour and a half that simply flew by here in the most sumptuous of company. Seventeen years on from the release of that particular song, Jenny Lewis is finally being given the platform she deserves for her unique, rare and special talents. And on the evidence of tonight, that is a platform she is going to stay on in all her glittering, glorious and ragged-hearted glory.
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Words by David Edwards, you can read more of David’s writing for Louder Than War in his archive