Jenny Lewis kicked off the Mission Creek Festival at the Englert Theatre on Tuesday night. She is a joy to behold and a master at working the crowd. But we’ll get back to Jenny in a just a moment.
The Watson Twins opened the show. They’ve been featured on several tracks with Jenny Lewis and appeared last night in matching white cowboy boots to go with their classic country sound. The song “Cry Baby” stands out as a slow ballad that could have been pulled right out of a country radio station in the late 1960s (George Jones and Tammy Wynette were name-dropped in the song’s introduction). As far as opening acts go, they did their job of priming the audience for what was to come.
The crowd was indistinguishable from one that would pay to see Weezer (today, not in 1997). Being the age of 30 would unquestionably put a person on the younger part of the distribution. Conversations during the intermission were more likely to be about children than about the latest features on Snap. “She’s about to turn six … has a strong personality,” I distinctly remember hearing.
Nevertheless, they were there for a good time, as evidenced by the long lines for alcohol and the strong smell of weed smoke that permeated the break. There were good vibes all around. After all, Jenny Lewis was up next.
From the back of a darkened stage, Jenny strolled to the piano in a form-fitting, sequined dress with fur around the wrists and a hairdo that says “Prom 1967.” Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny, Jenny” accompanied her to the stage. The crowd went nuts. Before she ever sang a note, the winner for the coolest-person-in-the-venue contest had been decided.
Jenny’s attitude is her greatest asset. Her subtle movements and vocal inflections are so expressive that a wider vocal range wouldn’t really add much to the mix. Her voice can be husky or powerful, and she knows how to hold a pause just long enough for the right effect.
Behind a piano or up front on a platform, Jenny made use of the entire stage. With a suggestive swing of her hips, she had the entire venue up and swaying on more than one occasion. The band complements her, but Miss Lewis commands all attention.
Much of her lyrics reflect hard-earned wisdom that’s only available to those who’ve lived through it. The chorus of “Little White Dove,” from her new album On the Line, highlights a wise self-assurance reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt. I particularly like the knowing nod to hypocrisy in “Rise Up with Fists!”:
Are you really that pure, sir?
Thought I saw you in Vegas
It was not pretty, but she was
The end of the show began with the ring of a neon-lit landline phone rang near the front of the stage. Jenny answered, allowing the crowd to listen in on both sides of the conversation. “Hey, do you guys want to come up and sing a couple songs with me?” On the other end were our old friends the Watson Twins. They obliged. It was a clever and fun way to bring the opening act back onstage and roll through their collaborative work like the aforementioned “Rise Up with Fists!”
The first time I saw Jenny Lewis was the main stage at 80/35 a couple of years back. I became a fan that night, but I now realize I hadn’t seen her at her best. Her style and talent is tailor-made for the intimate feel of a small theater, a fact that became all too clear Tuesday night at the Englert.