Jenny Lewis must have quite the Rolodex.
When the ex-Rilo Kiley lead singer and current indie rock royalty started dropping hints on social media that a very special guest was scheduled to open her show at the Masonic on Thursday night, the guesses from fans poured in. Could it be Conor Oberst? Ryan Adams? M. Ward? Expectations were sky high, and Ms. Lewis, as is her custom, did not disappoint.
Watching Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard serve as opener, alone with an acoustic guitar and his adorably rambling thoughts, was the perfect lead-in to a show that was celebrating the 10th anniversary of Lewis’s first solo record, Rabbit Fur Coat. To hear songs like “Cath” and “Title and Registration” performed live felt like a time warp back to 2006. With all due respect to the other members of Death Cab, the songs Gibbard played lost none of their potency as solo numbers, instead thriving in the dark, hushed atmosphere that the band’s music often conjures.
“All the songs I’m going to play will slow down at the end,” Gibbard noted midway through his set. “So, if you don’t like something I’m playing, just listen for it to slow down and you’ll know it’s almost over.”
It was an excessively humble suggestion from an artist no one was eager to see leave the stage. However, after nine songs, he did just that, and when the lights went back down, the crowd seemed at once to collectively remember exactly who they’d originally come to see.
Recent years have found many artists embracing the idea of playing a specific album in full. While the concept can come across as a novelty, it’s also a reason to tour again when no other ideas present themselves. Such was the case for Lewis, providing her with an opportunity to dust-off 12 immaculate tracks of heartbreak, empowerment, and gospel by way of bluegrass. Flanked by the Watson Twins, (Rabbit Fur Coat prominently features the two singing sisters), Lewis took the stage with candles in hand and an a capella rendition of album opener “Run Devil Run” on her lips.
All three had on the outfits – Lewis in red, the twins in blue — that they wore on the album’s cover. A background of the hallway in which the cover photo was taken hung behind them, but one couldn’t be blamed for not noticing it. For the 40 or so minutes Lewis and her collaborators were on stage playing through Rabbit Fur Coat, the focus was squarely on her.
Honoring the album that established her ascent from lead singer to formidable solo artist, Lewis gave faithful renditions of tracks like “Rise Up with Fists!!” and “Melt Your Heart.” She said nearly nothing between tracks, a choice that amplified the experience of hearing an album in the flesh, feeling bass lines and snare hits not through earbuds but rather your rib cage. The Watson Twins offered synchronized dance moves as Lewis stood atop amplifiers and swung her hair in time to the melodies.
A costume change followed “You Are What You Love,” with Lewis returning sans her band in a black embroidered pantsuit for a solo take on title track “Rabbit Fur Coat.” Then, it was time for “Handle with Care,” the Traveling Wilbury’s cover that, in its studio form, features Lewis alongside Oberst, Ward, and Gibbard. Gibbard returned to play tambourine and he nailed the Roy Orbison sections. It was pure joy: A superband’s best track as re-imagined by worthy descendants. When the final notes of Rabbit Fur Coat had finished, an intermission was announced. But Lewis wasn’t done yet.
The hallway background was replaced with the rainbow color scheme that adorns Lewis’s latest effort, The Voyager. She returned to the stage with the Watson Twins in tow and launched into “Head Underwater,” The Voyager’s opening track. Later, she cheekily dedicated another Voyager cut — “She’s Not Me” – to Jennifer Aniston.
In the course of her nine song “voyage through the past, present and future” (as the handbill given to attendees described the final portion of the evening), there were also cuts from her second album, Acid Tongue, an a capella rendition of The Shirelles’ “I Met Him on a Sunday,” and cuts from Lewis’s other bands. In honor of Rilo Kiley, she brought out “I Never,” and followed it with “Door,” a song from her newly formed trio, N.A.F.
Late in the show, Lewis noted that the evening represented her final show of the Rabbit Fur Coat 10th Anniversary tour.
“Dear San Francisco,” she said, looking out at the crowd. “I’ve loved you since Bottom of the Hill.”
The size of the venues and the breadth of her fan base may have grown exponentially since those days, but Lewis has, thankfully, stayed just the same. She’s an immaculate performer, infectiously energetic as a stage presence, and potently profound with her voice and words. She doesn’t take shit, and always gives everything. In short, we’ve loved her since Bottom of the Hill too, and we have no plans of stopping.