After seeing her do her thing at the House of Blues on Wednesday, I think I can safely conclude that something about Jenny Lewis just doesn’t do it for me.
VIDEO: Deer Tick, "Little White Lies," live at House of Blues
I can’t rightly say the performance was bad. She’s got a wonderful voice and she uses it well, and her band sounded really great doing the Nashville/gospel-pop thing (as heard on her most recent Warner Bros. solo album, Acid Tongue) — notably guitarist Jonathan Rice and drummer Barbara Gruska. I can’t level the “technically proficient but lacking in passion” accusation at her either, since it’s clear they were enjoying themselves up there. Part of my problem with the show might be the material — Acid Tongue is pretty limp. But even putting that aside, it was all just a little too mannered, too pristine, too disciplined. Not a note was out of place. Every movement seemed rehearsed to within an inch of its life, down to the smallest pinky twitch. Nothing seemed unique; the performance probably sounded exactly the same in St. Louis and Seattle.
The most compelling moment came when Lewis took the stage alone with an acoustic guitar and played a rendition of “Silver Lining,” off Rilo Kiley’s latest album, Under the Blacklights. On record, “Silver Lining” is stiflingly slick and glossy, but live and stripped down it was a revelation. During what you’d expect to be a musical interlude, Lewis started singing the guitar part quietly, almost to herself. She interrupted herself to offer a sheepish apology: “This is usually Blake’s part,” referring to Blake Sennett, the other key member of Rilo Kiley. Who knows? Maybe that part was just as calculated as the rest, but it at least gave off the illusion of spontaneity.
This all would have been easier to swallow had Providence natives Deer Tick not stormed in earlier and charmed us. Deer Tick are still a fairly young band, and this is certainly the biggest tour they’ve embarked on. They have a new album due (Born on Flag Day, on indie Partisan) that could well propel them to a new level of renown (though probably not actual fame) — and they seem totally at ease with that.
Their set opened with drummer Dale Ryan singing the “Day Man” song from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the jokes progressed from there. Head Tick John J. McCauley, who has a naturally easygoing air about him (it’s enhanced by his shaggy handlebar moustache), encouraged people to buy Born on Flag Day by deadpanning, “It’s probably one of the best records ever. It’s right up there with Shaq Diesel.”
For reasons that weren’t immediately apparent, they broke into an impromptu version of the first few bars of Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash into Me” (McCauley called them a great band, his voice dripping with irony, I think/hope) that was shockingly faithful to the original. They brought out guests, like Chris Paddock, an old friend from Rhode Island who wrote “These Old Shoes” for their 2007 album War Elephant (and a dead ringer for Bradford Cox in b-boy gear), and Liz Isenberg, who added her vocals to Born on Flag Day’s “Friday XIII.” The rest of the material, both old and new, sounded great, particularly the full-band adaptation of “Art Isn’t Real (City of Sin)” and the one-two combo of “Easy” and “Little White Lies.” They closed with silly covers of Santo and Johnny and a bit of “La Bamba,” but it wasn’t as cheesy as you’d think. It was just four guys having some fun — which, it seems, still counts for quite a lot.