Sunday, July 5, 2009

Jenny Lewis Rocks Battery Park

"Saturday.  In the Park..." Jenny Lewis begins quietly; a gentle lullaby that is a striking change after an hour of her rocking and crooning at the River to River Festival.  But suddenly the hundreds of fans scattered throughout Battery Park know where the song is going,  as she continues a capella, "You'd think it was the Fourth of July..."  (Which it was.)

Jenny Lewis and her band seem to be the very definition of musicians.  They rotate instruments, demonstrating a range of skills that is far from common in their contemporaries.  Sure, Lewis is the lead singer and also plays the keys, plus the acoustic and electric guitars, but the other lady of the group, Barbara Gruska, for example, is equally impressive as a backup singer who also rocks on the drums and the harmonica.

The hour long set (as the opening act for their good friends, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band) featured Lewis classics such as "Acid Tongue", "The Next Messiah" and Rilo Kiley's "Silver Lining" plus one or two new songs.  And of course, they pulled Conor Oberst out to join them on one song, at which point he and Lewis pressed their faces together to share the microphone center stage.  

The most impressive thing about Lewis and her band, aside from their obvious talent, is the way that they just make you want to be a musician.  They not only make it look cool and fashionable (Lewis in her typical tight, short shorts), but also, and more importantly, they make it look fun.  That accounts for the energy that rolls off the stage and floods the audience, even one as diverse and sprawling as that on the lawn at Battery Park.  They are, needless to say, excellent performers; just enjoying doing their thing, with nothing to prove.  

At the end of the set, as her piano notes reverberated over the pulsing drums, Lewis raised her American flag, then waved, simply and shyly, and turned and walked off the stage, leaving the two drummers to a solo showdown on the empty stage.  And somehow, her humility and grace made us all proud to be American.   

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

One Woman Who Draws A Crowd

Julia Weldon is one of those transparent performers who wears her heart on her sleeve.  Her lyrical songs speak beautifully to her unique sense of humor and perspective  ("I wanna write like Bobby Dylan and go to jail like Johnny Cash").  Even her guitar strumming seems dictated by her impulses, alternating between big and passionate and quiet and gentle. 
    Playing for the first time at Rockwood Music Hall on June 30th (to a full house despite her admitted fears that no one would show up), Weldon was candid about her nerves.  "I'm gonna forget some lyrics," she warned before one song, mid-set, "Just get ready for it."  
And yet there is something about her that is charming and comforting despite all nerves.  As an audience, you feel well taken care of.
It was a well thought out set, even visually, hinting at Weldon's career as an actor.  "Apparently there are sitting and standing songs," she mused as she found herself moving to and from the stool. 
She threw in one song a capella, short and sweet, and later invited Alyssa Robbins, a friend and peer in the singer/songwriter scene, to join her onstage.  This duet hinted at a good idea for Weldon and her one-woman show; she shares the stage just as well as she holds it on her own, but some of her songs benefit from additional harmonies and instrumental layers.
   She is a woman of surprises: the things that come out of her mouth are never what you're expecting.  Even her songs go in unforeseen directions, such as "One of These Days" which dissolves pleasantly into her own version of "Over the Rainbow".  
    So who knows what to expect at Weldon's next show?  Other than a charming performance. And probably a stool. 

Photo credit: Rebecca Greenberg