Review: Jenny Lewis at Belly Up Aspen
It’s not often you go see a rock star in concert hoping to hear the new stuff. We usually want the sonic comfort food of old hits.
But Jenny Lewis’ tour supporting the new record “On the Line,” which stopped at Belly Up on July 10, is something different. The new album from the indie rock icon and former Rilo Kiley singer plumbs new depths from Lewis and that feel so vital that they overshadow nostalgia and familiarity of her older catalog.
She’s a bard of boozy bad decisions, writing in the hard-luck storytelling tradition of alt-country but delivering it all in a genre-hopping style that moves among gospel ballads, rock, some light disco and some hard-edged blues.
And — in this show — she wrapped it all in stylized, subversive showmanship. Lewis came onstage to roars from her fervent fans, in smirking triumph, to Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny,” wearing a form-fitting, gold-sequined and fur-cuffed dress.
The set showcased nine out of the 11 songs from her new album, arguably the best new record of 2019, in a set list filled out by solo material and Rilo Kiley songs. The new songs included stand-out takes on “Hollywood Lawn” and “Red Bull & Hennessey,” “Little White Dove,” “Dogwood” and “Party Clown.” She opened playing stand-up piano — topped with two retro light-up rotary phones to underscore the “on the line” metaphor — on the mordant new rocker “Heads Gonna Roll.”
Over the night, she moved between the piano, a stand-up microphone and a raised platform that elevated her high above the heads of the club’s crowd. The stage persona made the bite of the raw, personal songs in “On the Line” — written in the wake of her mother’s death and the dissolution of a long-term relationship — somehow sharper than the recorded versions.
Lewis doesn’t do raw confessional weepies, this is sad stuff you can dance to (“She’s Not Me”) and clap along to (“The Big Guns”) and sing along with (“Silver Lining,” more on that in a bit). And she can command a pin-drop silence from the audience, as she did on the bittersweet, languid crooner “Happy.” On the hymn-like “Born Secular,” she left the stage so her new five-piece band could take solos.
There’s a rare alchemy in this music, in a song like “Do Si Do,” about dealing with a depressed friend and including lines like “You ain’t no pharaoh/Get back on your Paxil,” that look straight at the darkness and greet it with a resigned smile.
On the beloved Rilo Kiley song “Silver Lining,” Lewis had two false starts and flubbed her lyrics.
“I’m not gonna blame the altitude,” she told the crowd. “But I’m not not.”
She then offered up the song to the crowd, asking if anybody wanted to sing it. A brave super-fan from the reserved section then joined her onstage to sing it better than anybody could have expected her to. Lewis simply stood back and danced until joining in on the final chorus.
In another bit of effective crowd participation, on “With Arms Outstretched” she asked the Belly Up production crew to turn out all the stage lights and asked fans to light her with the flashlights on their cellphones. What might have been a goofy gimmick turned the tail end of the show into a raw and intimate experience that broke down the barriers between audience and artist. No longer was she up there bathed in the professional and planned colors of a rock star, but just a singer telling a story with minimalist notes punctuating it all.
There’s a lot of grief and darkness in these new songs, along with moments of rebirth and light and a reminder that sometimes the best way out is to put on a sparkly dress and laugh about it all.
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