I’m Having Fun Now, the “debut” album by Jenny and Johnny (Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice), is being marketed as the first collaboration between indie lovebirds Lewis and Rice. This isn’t strictly the case, though; Lewis and Rice have been all over each other’s material (what the kids are calling it these days) for the last five years. Rice has been playing in Lewis’ touring band since 2006, and had a very strong presence on her underrated 2008 LP, Acid Tongue. In turn, Lewis co-wrote and sang on several tracks from Rice’s 2007 album, Further North. But now these kids have made it official and released a full-length duets album. Last night, they played the first of two nights at Great American Music Hall. How did it go?
The first act of the evening was an ensemble of San Francisco musicians assembled by Farmer Dave Scher, who sang lead vocals and played guitar. I don’t know very much about Farmer Dave, but I know he’s been touring with Jenny for five years now, and she seems to think he’s absolutely hilarious (there’s even an “Ask Farmer Dave” column on her official website). I can’t vouch for this personally, despite his passing resemblance to a tanned and cleaned-up Zach Galifianakis. But he’s certainly a solid musician, which is what mattered under the circumstances. He and his band introduced the early crowd to the brand of sunny California garage-surf that would dominate the rest of the evening.
Next were local stalwarts Sonny & the Sunsets, who wowed the crowd with their…sunny California garage surf. Sorry, I can only think of so many different ways to describe it. Thank God I’m not reviewing their gig opening for Best Coast next month. But Sonny and Co. also incorporate elements of psychedelia into their songwriting that gives their music a decidedly more intoxicating Bay Area feel, which was eaten up by the crowd. Jenny Lewis also appeared to be enjoying herself, standing to the side of the stage for the majority of the set and generally rocking out. As she exclaimed when thanking them during the J&J set, “Sonny & the Sunsets, holy smokes!”
And then, finally, it was time for Jenny and Johnny. And when I say finally, I mean finally. It is my sad duty to report that J&J committed one of the Cardinal Concert Sins: they didn’t begin their set until after 11pm — on a weeknight. Now I don’t mean to sound like an old curmudgeon, but unless you’re a coke-addicted 22-year-old, this is just impractical and inconsiderate. A considerable portion of the crowd, including our photographer and my concert date, quit that bitch before the 70-minute set came to an end. Which was a shame, because it was a good set.
Jenny and Johnny, joined by Rilo Kiley’s Jason Boesel on drums and some teenaged whippersnapper on guitar, pulled their material almost entirely from I’m Having Fun Now, playing ten of its eleven songs (“While Men Are Dreaming” got the shaft). They also played a handful of new or non-album tracks, as well as their road-tested Gram-and-Emmylou rendition of “Love Hurts.”
They dipped into their back catalog only once, for a satisfactorily rollicking rendition of the eight-minute epic “The Next Messiah” from Acid Tongue. It seemed an odd choice, but it’s likely they wanted to play as few old songs as possible, so they just picked the most dependable showstopper to shut everyone up. Rice in particular seemed nonplussed by the audience’s shouted requests for their favorites (presumably from Lewis’ albums), at one point reprimanding someone from the stage by drawling, “You keep asking us to play the old, but we’re all about the new. So why don’t you just sit back and let us fucking blast off into the future?” Go right ahead, sir.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Rice bristle at an audience; when he opened for Lewis at her legendary first SF solo appearance at Swedish American Hall in early 2006, he curtly responded to a woman’s shriek of “I love you!” by harrumphing, “Darlin’, you don’t hardly know me.” Charming? But Rice, with his boyish good looks (he resembles a less cracked-out Michael Pitt) and alluringly gruff vocals, can still get away with it. It won’t seem quite as cool when he enters his Crazy Heart period, though.
And, of course, he has the good fortune to share the stage with the endlessly adorable Ms. Lewis. As always, Jenny demonstrated her inimitable instincts for a compelling stage performance. While she is more than a decade removed from her childhood career as an actress, she remains highly actorly in her approach to singing live.
She has a different face for every song, and can pivot her expressions on a dime: from coy and coquettish to furrowed and heartbroken to snarling and ferocious, sometimes all in the span of one song, and never less than totally convincing. There’s also the hilariously over-animated stage parent face she reserves for mouthing directions to the soundboard crew, but that’s another story. She remains an absolute gem, and the audience’s most enthusiastic reactions were during the songs with Lewis in the lead vocal (which could have been turned up, by the way).
But then, tragically, Jenny and Johnny committed yet a second Cardinal Concert Sin: they left without playing an encore. And not only did they not play an encore, they barely even said goodbye. It was the most obvious “We’re not saying goodbye because we’ll be back on the stage in two minutes” exit I’ve ever seen — except they never came back! The remaining crowd seemed utterly incapable of processing this blow. We stayed on, clapping and cheering and stomping, even as the lights came up and the “get the fuck out” music started to play.
We were convinced that we’d been punked, that any minute they’d come back out and play an encore of audience favorites. Eventually someone had to get on the mic and formally announce that the show was over. Only then were we able to gather our thoughts and begin resignedly shuffling toward the exit. What gives? Was it a time issue? Is there some kind of ordinance at GAMH about being done by midnight? I vaguely remember Jenny mouthing “I’m sorry!” at the crowd while hurriedly leaving the stage. Does anyone know what happened?
Anyway, despite the fact that Jenny and Johnny managed to commit two Cardinal Concert Sins in the course of a single one-hour performance, it was still a fun show that gave an excellent spotlight to all the awesomeness on I’m Having Fun Now. Jenny and Johnny will play at GAMH again tonight (Friday, September 3).
New Yorker Cartoon
My Pet Snakes
Just Like Zeus
Straight Edge of the Blade
The Next Messiah
What Am I Gonna Do?
Just One of the Guys