From the opening notes of “It’s a Hit,” it was clear that Lewis was in superb voice. She caressed and modulated the words/tone of every song for maximum impact.
University of Missouri Jesse Auditorium, Columbia, Mo.
w/Grand Ole Party and Johnathan Rice
The more concerts you go to, the more you appreciate the ones that really stand out. I already had high expectations going to see Rilo Kiley for the first time-I’d heard they were pretty good live, and my crush on singer Jenny Lewis was rapidly intensifying. I could hardly wait to see her in the flesh, especially after my fondness for the band’s new record. So to say I was primed for this show would be an understatement.
It’s amazing to say, then, that the concert exceeded all my expectations by a mile. And a university auditorium with great acoustics turned out to be the perfect place for my premiere RK gig. First, let’s give props to impressive openers Grand Ole Party and Johnathan Rice. The former, a powerhouse San Diego trio headed by drummer/vocalist Kristin Gundred, turned in a tight, dynamically balanced set of bluesy power pop. I haven’t heard many female drummers with the pipes of Gundred-she belted out tune after tune with real flair, sounding at times like a cross between Janis Joplin and Martha Wash (the singer on “It’s Raining Men”). They performed songs from their debut album Humanimals, produced by Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley.
In a dramatic stylistic switch, up next was Johnathan Rice, an indie folk rocker with long hair and the demeanor and charisma of a young Brad Pitt. Rice came across as a wide-eyed innocent in rock n’ roll Oz; and while his voice was strong and nuanced, it was his intros and between-song banter that were most memorable. “This song is about how the weather gets colder the farther north you go” was one laugh-inducing comment; another was “This is a song about how coyotes are gonna take over California and rip out the heart of Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Songs included “We’re All Stuck Out in the Desert” (another tune with a wryly funny intro) and “End of the Affair,” for which Rice brought out his co-writer on the tune, Jenny Lewis. The crowd loved it, and every minute of Rice’s set was wonderfully engaging.
Okay, so on to Rilo Kiley. Though the venue wasn’t packed, the audience was ultra-enthusiastic, with about half of them pressed up against the stage to see the adored indie rock heroes do their thing. And what a thing it was! Jenny Lewis emerged wearing a stunning, sequined top, silver hot pants and white tights, an outfit that drew equal attention to her long auburn hair and gorgeous legs. You can take your over hyped pop tarts and egocentric divas; Lewis is the real thing-beautiful, talented and musically disciplined.
From the opening notes of “It’s a Hit,” it was clear that Lewis was in superb voice. She caressed and modulated the words/tone of every song for maximum impact. “Portions for Foxes” (a title with multiple meanings, for sure) was utterly transcendent, one of the best single performances I’ve ever seen a band do. “I keep on talkin’ trash but I never say anything…Baby I’m bad news,” sang Lewis with exquisite articulation, and you could feel the crowd falling hard for her with each potent, sexy lyric.
The band naturally performed a raft of songs from their new Under the Blacklight CD, and these attained vibrant new life onstage. “Close Call” was a melodic delight; so were “Breakin’ Up” (on which Lewis was front and center striking a cowbell), “The Moneymaker” (accompanied by strobe lights) and the superb “Smoke Detector,” a sexy-as-hell tune on which Lewis did a few beguiling little dance moves that added another whole level of “smoke” to the performance.
Although Lewis was riveting the entire time, the rest of the band cooked as well. Sennett looked dapper in a gray vest and black bow tie, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself. He’s a terrific guitarist, favoring bright, sweet notes at the upper end of the fret board which often poured out like little droplets of melody. Sennett sang the lead vocal on “Greetings” and “Dreamland.” The rhythm section of Jason Boesel and Pierre de Reeder were also solid throughout.
Although new material was well-received, you could hear the audience’s excitement double whenever the band did older songs, such as “Wires and Waves,” “Ripchord,” the kick-ass rocker “Spectacular Views” and the incandescent “With Arms Outstretched.” This number featured just Sennett and Lewis onstage, and the sight of Lewis raising the mic out to the audience so their voices could be heard on lyrics about “the promised land,” induced chills.
The first encore was apparently a huge surprise to the hardcore Rilo fans in attendance-“A Man/Me/Then Jim” is not performed at every show, and the crowd went nuts. And “Does He Love You” was yet another peerless Lewis vocal, leaving me to conclude that this was very likely the best gig I’d ever seen by a female-fronted rock band. Lewis was simply a model of vocal grace and confident allure. The entire evening could be summed up by one of Rilo Kiley’s lyrics: “It’s so fucking beautiful.” That it was, and I could almost physically feel these former indie rockers turning into one of the greatest bands in the world before my very eyes | Kevin Renick