F. Scott Fitzgerald is frequently taken out of context by people who quote him as having written that “there are no second acts in American lives.” He actually wrote, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.” Like America’s greatest city, there is a second act to Jenny Lewis’s boom days. The former child and teen actress, now in her early 40s, has become an amazingly gifted songwriter and a spectacular live performer. Her dynamism was on full display at The Anthem Thursday night.
Resplendent in a gold sequin full-length dress, Jenny was a shimmering vision of glamour and beauty. Her look called back to latter-day songstresses, simultaneously sexy and classy. Tasteful, understated geometric patterns reminiscent of the Western high desert comprised the set decoration; they framed the stage and fronted the instruments, while leaving the space behind the band open.
Jenny had a diverse band whose members came and went throughout her set. She had two guitarists, a man and a woman. Her African-American bassist sang sweet-voiced backup tenor vocals. Both of her string players — a violinist and a fiddler — were women. There were keys and drums throughout the set.
Jenny’s set showcased her versatility. She drew on sounds from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. There was Americana with strings, folk-rock, and classic country, sure. But there was also disco and funky R&B. In addition to straight-up rockers, there was a capella three-part harmony. It was a fine demonstration of Jenny’s broad musical talent.
Sitting down at the piano, Jenny began with her full band playing two songs in Americana stylings from her latest album, this year’s critically lauded On the Line. On the first tune, “Heads Gonna Roll,” they went all acoustic, except for the bass. The male guitar player went electric on “Wasted Youth,” which evoked the ’60s with drug and astrology references.
Stream On the Line by Jenny Lewis on Spotify:
As the string section left, Jenny drank from a blue goblet, then stepped to the mic at the front of the stage to sing “The Big Guns” (which don’t seem to be literal guns) from her white soul album Rabbit Fur Coat, which she made in 2006 with the opening act, The Watson Twins. She changed gears, going into a straight-up rocker, “Head Underwater” next. Jenny coaxed the audience into singing, “There’s a little bit of magic,” and she followed with the line, “Everybody has it.”
The lights flickered as Jenny sultrily sang “Happy.” She busted out the rhythm sticks, and her keys player backed her on the accordion. “The Voyager,” with its mentions of exploding spaceships, was played as a dance remix, and Jenny told the audience to focus on her as a “Jewish disco ball.” She said that she had done that the 23AndMe genetic test, and it had come back as 90% Ashkenazi (Ashkenazi are the Jews of Northern Europe.) She implored the audience not to contact her about any possible imagined relationships. Jenny holds the distinction of being perhaps the only commercially significant Jewish female artist who works even marginally in Americana/alt-country.
For “Do Si Do,” the diminutive singer climbed on a riser with a tambourine. The string section returned just for “She’s Not Me,” and the female guitarist took a break during the Laurel Canyon-influenced “Hollywood Lawn.” As red light illuminated the stage, Jenny played acoustic guitar on “Red Bull and Hennessy,” one of the singles from On the Line. “Just One of the Guys” was released a single, too, from The Voyager.
Things got wild during “Little White Dove,” Jenny’s homage to Prince. Bright yellow lights gleaming off her dress, Jenny danced like a madwoman on top of the riser. At some point, she produced a cowbell, seemingly out of thin air. Giant balloons fell from the ceiling, and the crowd bobbled them. It was a joyous scene.
As the balloons bounced, Jenny took a moment to address the crowd. “I’m so hard on myself. I want to be perfect. But sometimes I’ve got to cut myself some slack.” She spoke about kindness to ourselves and to others, and she asked everyone to say hi to the people sitting next to them. (It was a seated show.) Jenny then closed her set with “Born Secular,” and quickly returned for her substantial encore.
Jenny got the crowd clapping during “See Fernando,” and asked everyone to stand. She cracked and had to turn away from the audience, saying “I’m not going to look at you guys.”
Everyone left the stage the except for Jenny and her male guitarist, who accompanied her on the Rilo Kiley song “With Arms Outstretched.” At her request, the crowd lit the flashlights on their phones. I looked over my shoulder to take in the awesome sight of the three-story neo-retro venue, and I can only imagine how it looked to Jenny from the stage.
After another Rilo Kiley song, “Silver Lining,” a phone rang onstage. It was the Watson Twins, who said that they’d gone to Ben’s Chili Bowl for a dog. Jenny invited them out to join her. For their opening set, they’d worn checkered white and black outfits; they had changed into blue matching ensembles.
The Watson Twins provided harmony vocals on two songs from Rabbit Fur Coat, “Melt Your Heart” and “Rise Up with Fists.” Then Jenny and the Twins gathered around a single mic and performed an a capella rendition of “Met Him On A Sunday.” (In a truly freaky coincidence, I queued up a Laura Nyro album as I walked to the Metro, and this exact song came on first.) The Watsons provided harmony again as Jenny brought it all home on the old-school country classic “I’m Only a Woman.”
Jenny said during the evening that the she wanted to bring good vibes. She definitely succeeded. She made us all believe that “There’s a little bit of magic” and “Everybody has it.” When the balloons dropped, I was absolutely giddy; I shouted, “My heart is full of joy!” The woman next to me said “Mine, too.” This was a night to remember.