Saturday evening (Jan. 30) was the last of a commemorative three-night run by Jenny Lewis at the Presbyterian Immaculate Cathedral in Los Angeles. The shows honored Lewis’ solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, which turned 10 last week.
She plays it in full under the watchful gaze of Jesus himself. Over the past week, the indie blogosphere that grew up around the same time as Lewis fawned over the singer-songwriter’s impact on their personal lives. For a sizeable community, the acronym “W.W.J.D.” stands for “What Would Jenny Do,” particularly for female critics and performers.
In the mid-2000s, Lewis was a lone female voice among the Conor Obersts, Ben Gibbards and Ryan Adamses, occupying the emo alt-Americana scene. Lewis’ canon of music served as a rite of passage to womanhood like Judy Blume or Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
Upon receiving a pamphlet at the door for the order of service, I recall how similar pamphlets were distributed at the toilet venue in my university back in 2006 when I saw this show the first time around. For Lewis, Rabbit Fur Coat was a pivotal key change, catapulting her solo career after the disbanding of group Rilo Kiley. For her fans, the emancipation was infectious.
Where Lewis may have seen a slew of acts established in her wake (Best Coast, Haim, Speedy Ortiz, Dum Dum Girls), her prolific catalog elicits a deep and uniquely personal experience that has kept fans on-side in a way that’s often difficult for them to express. Taking a pew next to a stained glass window is one Valley girl who utters, “Jenny Lewis… dude, I can’t even.”
In recent interviews, Lewis herself admits that sometimes the plain meaning of her material escapes her. “Sometimes I don’t understand what I’m writing about and it kind of takes me a decade to figure it out,” she joked.
When Lewis plays “Rabbit Fur Coat” as the first of two parts of Saturday’s show, it’s as though she’s still trying to figure it out. She doesn’t acknowledge the audience at all while delivering it from front-to-back as immaculately as its recorded version. It adds to the drama, like she’s citing a sermon from the pulpit, one about profound sadness, the trappings of fame and her difficult childhood. When she sings about loneliness, you feel the isolation with her, and yet remain disengaged from your leader. It’s funny and deeply sad.
Upon entering the church in a red dress similar to the one she wore on the album’s sleeve, Lewis is followed by gospel backing singers The Watson Twins, her cohorts from “Rabbit Fur Coat,” into a hall bathed in purple light. The threesome carry candlesticks through the crowd before embarking upon a sonic journey rooted in country and gospel, performing the tracks like a ’60s girl band mistakenly hired by a member of the diocese to sing devotional music for the night. They harmonize, clap and shimmy their way through songs like “The Big Guns,” “Rise Up With Fists” and “Happy,” which sound even more assured now that they’re detached from the scene they were born into, proving to stand the test of time regardless of context.
On the latter, Lewis lets nothing but her voice and a guitar strum fill the lofty ceilings with lyrics like, “I’d rather be lonely, I’d rather be free.” It’s met with a respectful silence that doubles as an ironic warning that we should be careful what we wish for. When she sings “This institution’s like a big white lie” on “The Charging Sky,” the perplexity Lewis suffers at the hand of religious pomp and circumstance feels almost punk (in the twee-est sense) in these settings. Lyrical highlights such as “It’s like a Valentine from your mother / And are we killing time? Are we killing each other?” remain as solid as the holy books stored in the venue’s seats. Only one line from “You Are What You Love” sounds charmingly ephemeral. “A phone is a fine invention/ It allows me to talk endlessly to you,” she sings with a smirk.
Walking back up the aisle cooing the reprise of “Happy,” the audience chimes along like they’re singing a hymn. Lewis exits the hall not like a runaway bride, but like the one who jilted the crowd, who still sat there, praying for her return.
And return she does. The second half of the evening is a different story. Animated and humorous in a white pant suit, Lewis starts to pick off favorites like “Just One of the Guys” from her most recent album, The Voyager. Then comes “Fernando” and a beefed-up psychedelic “Pretty Bird,” from 2008’s Acid Tongue. Even “Silver Lining” and a completely disarming rendition of “Never” by Rilo Kiley make an appearance.
“Hello city of angels!,” she says finally. “So many angels!” An a capella Shirelles cover of “I Met Him on a Sunday” sees all of said angels on their feet, whooping and hollering.
If the performance of “Rabbit Fur Coat” was some form of atonement, the second half is the lease of life that comes after. Take it as clever commentary — conscious or otherwise — on how that debut led to Lewis’ liberation. Her career has subsequently produced a catalog spanning styles and eras, one that dares to envision a classic form of Americana that’s quipped with cool smarts and a dead-pan view on societal ills.
Treating us to a new one called “Red Bull And Hennessy,” the night also promised a sign of future things to come. The song’s chugging rhythm feels similar to The War on Drugs‘ latest, where the melody is pure “Tango in the Night”-era Fleetwood Mac. Lewis is the kind of musician who writes two songs a day, nevermind one. Ten years of Rabbit Fur Coat is only just the beginning.