Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, CA 9/2/10
By Peter Zimmerman
October 01, 2010
Jenny and Johnny’s first sold out show at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall had every reason to be a great concert. Jenny Lewis’ solo career has yielded two excellent records, the first being a collaboration with the Watson Twins that dug into folk stylings, and the second a more experimental and rock-forward disc with a markedly more mature sound. And then there’s always her band Rilo Kiley, whose rise to fame through the indie ranks and into the mainstream was wholly deserved. And everytime I’ve seen Lewis perform she’s been simply radiant, keeping the audience enraptured by her witty lyrics and powerful delivery. Her most recent album, I’m Having Fun Now, recorded alongside Jonathan Rice as “Jenny and Johnny” is a solid California-inspired album that features many classic Rilo Kiley and Jenny Lewis sounds but continues her exploration into summery jams and tight pop rockout numbers. Unfortunately, the group’s first show in San Francisco displayed very little of their collective talent and promise.
First of all, the band did not take the stage until 11 PM. The long wait made the audience seem restless and annoyed, rather than building the anticipation. But, as soon as they walked onstage, the audience applauded with fervor. Jenny and Johnny started with “Scissor Runner,” one of the singles from the album. It was a strong opening, but the sound in the venue was such that you could barely hear Jenny’s vocals, which add a real sparkle to the song on record. Next was “New Yorker Cartoon,” which seemed an odd choice for the second song of the set, as it was a bit snoozy and lacked any real dynamics. But they kicked it back up for “My Pet Snakes,” one of the highlights of the album, and it really came across beautifully in the live setting. Rice and Lewis attacked the vocals with passion, and the crowd reacted with lots of energy and dancing.
With two exceptions, what continued was, regrettably, a set that vacillated between mediocre and downright bad. On songs like “Just Like Zeus” and “Committed” the sound was so terrible that all you could hear were drums, Rice’s pitchy vocals and aggressive electric guitar. I could barely make out anything Jenny sang during “Straight Edge of the Blade” and “Slavedriver,” as the drums overwhelmed absolutely everything (thankfully, Jason Boesel of Rilo Kiley was the drummer, so it was slightly forgivable).
The three best songs of the evening came in the middle of the set, starting with “Switchblade.” You could actually hear Jenny’s acoustic guitar, which gave the song a great folk-driven feel alongside the rest of the instrumentation. The harmonies she delivered were spot-on, and it was nice to see one of the best songs from the album come alive on stage. “The Next Messiah”-- the only song from their collective back catalog—followed in all of its eight-minute epic glory. The audience (and me included) went absolutely insane during this song from excitement. The vocals were strong, the band was tight, and everything about it seemed right. At this point, I felt the concert had been redeemed by the simple inclusion of this song—an opinion I would yet again change by the end of the night.
“Love Hurts” was the only song of the evening with just the two of them playing acoustic guitar, and it became very clear that this decision was ill-advised. While Rice’s harmonies were often wavering in pitch, Jenny delivered sincere vocals with clarity and precision. It was such a relief to finally hear her pierce through after the muddled sound with the band, and we all were hoping they would pull out some other Lewis solo tracks or even Rilo Kiley ones before having the band return, especially after recordings of them doing stripped-down versions of “Silver Lining” and “Portions for Foxes” circulated the internet all last year from earlier shows. Sadly, this would not be the case, and the band returned for more middle-of-the-road versions of songs from the Jenny and Johnny album, skipping only one track out of the eleven from “I’m Having Fun Now.”
Even as midnight loomed every closer, it seemed that Jenny and Johnny might still kick it into high gear and redeem the set with some great covers and older songs. But, almost as soon as it became 12:00 AM, they walked off the stage with a single wave, not saying anything else. No thanks for the audience waiting hours for them to play, no thanks for the bad sound, and no thanks for the inclusion of only one older song. I have seen hundreds of live shows, and very few have lacked an encore section. No one wanted to believe it, but then the house lights came on and it was officially the end. A worker from the Hall had to get onstage to tell everyone to go home. I then witnessed some real vitriol pouring out of the audience. Everyone seemed desperate to try and explain the utter frustration away, but nothing could save the show from its unsuccessful end.
Jenny Lewis writes incredibly good pop songs that are fairly upbeat, intellectual and catchy. Her voice is an instrument with which to be reckoned, and every time I’ve seen her perform in the past has been a delightful and exciting experience. Unfortunately, this show seemed unrehearsed, emotionless and disingenuous. I would have rather stayed home and listen to the record and reminiscing on the great times I’ve seen her play with Jonathan Rice and they didn’t make the audience feel used and part of a big joke.
SETLIST: Scissor Runner, New Yorker Cartoon, My Pet Snakes, Just Like Zeus, Straight Edge of the Blade, Slavedriver, Switchblade, The Next Messiah, Love Hurts, Committed, What Am I Gonna Do?, Animal, Just One of the Guys, Big Wave