Midway through Christopher Owens’ set at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom this past Monday night, the ex-Girls’ frontman posed a question: “What if I’m just a bad songwriter?” In the lyric, from “Love Is in the Ear of the Listener” off of his new record Lysandre, Owens proceeds to wonder aloud whether his words are unoriginal and if he possesses the knack for entertaining an audience. Fortunately, his struggle with these and other insecurities are only momentary, as he ultimately concludes, “Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder/love is in the ear of the listener.” Had Owens continued to experience this self-doubt and lack of confidence, one would merely have to point out the 11 tracks on his new record to persuade him of his obvious songwriting talents.
Owens’ gig this evening consisted of a performance of the musician’s recently released album in its entirety. Lysandre, a concept record that revolves around Owens’ falling in love with a woman while embarking on his band’s first-ever tour, is replete with introspective lyrics recalling the artist’s one-time naiveté and his subsequent maturation, both as a man and a musician.
Taking the stage in a tweed suit and a tie, Owens, with his talented cast of bandmates, begins the show with “Lysandre’s Theme,” a short Renaissance-style instrumental featuring acoustic guitar and flute. The melody of the track is reprised on several occasions throughout the night, performed using an eclectic assortment of instruments, including saxophone, electric guitar and keyboard.
Given the predominantly restrained nature of Lysandre, the band’s performance is more or less casual and subdued. Owens sits at the center of the stage for a majority of the evening, rising from his chair only occasionally for the upbeat songs, such as the buoyant “New York City” and “Here We Go Again,” a breezy pop-rock number reminiscent of Marshall Crenshaw’s best work. During the ballads – “Here We Go,” “A Broken Heart” and “Everywhere You Knew” – Owens successfully channels the likes of Elliott Smith and Big Star’s Alex Chilton, delivering vocal performances that are invariably moving and equally plaintive and frail.
For most of the evening, the crowd is particularly attentive. The audience’s interest wanes only slightly during the lackluster ska-reggae-influenced “Riviera Rock.” The taciturn Owens, who nary speaks a word aside from the occasional “thank you” between songs, is given the crowd’s undivided attention. Fans’ eyes are only diverted when one of Owens’ seven bandmates commands it, such as when the wiry silver-haired gentleman in the group plays an inspired saxophone or harmonica solo or when one of the attractive female singers slithers like a snake to the rhythm of the music.
Following its performance of “Part of Me (Lysandre’s Epilogue),” the final song on the album, the band exits the stage to rousing applause. Owens and his group soon return for an encore of covers, playing Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” Donovan’s “Lalena,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Just as the band’s performance of Lysandre is virtually identical to the record, the group’s covers are quite faithful to the originals. The selected covers also have something else in common with the songs on Owens’ latest record: they are brutally honest and heartfelt. With so few artists around today that subscribe to the belief of authenticity, Owens is an endearing figure, and a show like this – devoid of all pretension – is refreshing to see.