Jenny Lewis is certainly an entertainer. "From Los Angeles, with love, here's Jenny Lewis," the announcer belted Vegas-style as she took the stage at the Marquee on Saturday night, and Ms. Lewis wasted no time making her indie-diva status abundantly clear. As her ace-card backing band cranked out solid seventies-folk rock approximations, Lewis blew kisses in the crowd, batted her eyes and generally sold herself to the room of hipster girls in floppy hats who brought along boys desperate to get into their high-waisted jeans.
Lewis' audience was clearly enthralled, but the former child-star has yet to escape critical questions about authenticity, and her Laurel Canyon bohemian lifestyle was reflected by her performance Saturday night, alternately recalling the soft-focus country-rock of Emmylou Harris, the gospel folk of Laura Nyro & Labelle, and the coked-out wonder of Rumors-era Fleetwood Mac. Sadly, artful references to "Bob Dylan's beard" do not a Joni Mitchell make.
Lewis fared best when she played up the-power pop aspects of her other band, Rilo Kiley. "Carpetbagger," from her most recent album Acid Tongue, pumped along with urgency. Guitarist Johnathan Rice traded verses with Lewis, wisely opting not to attempt Elvis Costello's froggy croon (Costello appears on the album). The band excelled at high energy boogie on other songs, like "Rise Up With Fists," "The Next Messiah," and their cover of the Traveling Wilbury's "Handle With Care," giving Lewis plenty of room to strut around the stage and showcase her microphone stand moves, which were considerably more impressive than her stage banter ("Thanks so much! You guys are cool!").
Lewis occasionally sent the majority of the band packing, leaving only the female members to replicate the harmonies of The Watson Twins. While the ladies did a fine job, they lacked the quavering, uniquely gospel aspect that made Rabbit Fur Coat a pleasurable update on the Gonna Take a Miracle model. The boys did join Lewis and the girls for a stripped down take on "Acid Tongue," providing the evenings most soulful, genuine moment, with some of the crowd hoisting lighters in ironic enjoyment.
Ultimately, it's not Lewis' sounds that fall short, not her theologically and narcotically-minded lyrics, or even her Urban Outfitters-approved style. It's the unshakable idea that while Lewis is good at playing Carol King, Emmylou Harris, or, at her most feral, Chrissie Hynde, she's still just acting, trying on different styles like someone desperately trying to cover up the fact she has nothing to say. And hell, Lewis herself might even agree with that statement, singing in a new song, "Outside of Silver Lake, I am the biggest fake."
Last Night: Jenny Lewis w/the Heartless Bastards at the Marquee
Better Than: Lewis' album Acid Tongue. Live the songs took on a warmer, more lived in tone, something the record was sorely lacking.
Personal Bias: Some of my favorite records of all time are by artists like Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Fleetwood Mac, and Laura Nyro, and I feel like Neko Case is a far better example of that aesthetic applied to modern songwriting.
Random Fact: Lewis isn't the only former child star in Rilo Kiley, guitarist/songwriter Blake Sennett played that jerk Joey "The Rat" Epstein on Boy Meets World.
Further Listening: Triumph the Insult Comic Dog rocks with Jenny Lewis.
By the Way: In "Sing a Song For Them," a song in which Lewis strangely marries Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" to Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," she sings "To the weekend tweakers," which drew a disturbingly enthusiastic cheer from a large portion of the crowd. What the hell, guys?