Listen, folks: appearance isn’t everything.

Lately, I’ve noticed more and more crowds resembling the bands they’re going to see. I’m looking past demographics, too – I fully understand a Lucero show is going to attract guys wearing baseball caps and sleeveless shirts, whereas the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are going to attract arty girls and hipsters with terrible haircuts. I’m talking more about the flat-out Karen O doppelgängers in the crowd – people going to the lengths of putting on matching costumes and makeup, researching images from previous shows in the tour in an effort to more closely match the performer.

The Jenny Lewis show at St. Louis’s best midsize venue, The Pageant, was no different. Lined up around the theater were plenty of young women with either purposely-untrimmed bangs, stylish hats, or fashion conscious jeans. It was, to put it bluntly, weird. It’s not hard to see why they’d idolize Lewis, though: a successful solo musician by any measure, co-leader of the even higher-profile Rilo Kiley, and indie sex symbol commands a certain kind of respect, if not flat-out imitation. The crowd was obviously there solely for Lewis, despite the two opening acts.

First up, though, was “Farmer” Dave Scher. Scher helped record Lewis’s Acid Tongue, and he and his backing band would all be back later to support Lewis as {her} band. Farmer Dave’s half hour set was loud and rocking, but in a spaced-out folky way. At times, his vocals were affected enough to sound like Harvest-era Neil Young. The Pageant’s crowd was politely indifferent, applauding when prodded and keeping the mid-song conversations to a minimum. Still, their atmospherics were enjoyable and their performance energetic, thus fulfilling their opening band duties with admirable aplomb.

Their concentration and energy were one-upped by Deer Tick. Rhode Island’s rockers arrived late, literally performing their sound check on stage before diving into their set. Having never heard them, I couldn’t immediately categorize them – they sounded Southern, with an air of roots and country music that rang true to their finger-pickin’ setup. They seemed like an amped-up country bar band, a larger, louder version of any number of bands that could have patrolled the bars in my rural hometown. Their lean country rock was further pushed by singer John Joseph McCauley III’s tough, nasal vocals – they sounded like America, though probably an America they’d imagined from 1977 – equally informed by country and classic rock FM radio, a land where music is meant to be played loud, mustaches are proud and bushy, and jean shorts are (at least) socially acceptable. A cover of John Mellencamp’s “Authority Song” was loose and honest, and though their music was a good fit for Lewis’ recent work, the crowd seemed disappointingly unenthusiastic.

It was Lewis’ appearance that drew the first real excitement of the night – and then, confusion. You see, Jenny didn’t look like a prissy, arty indie girl at all. She looked like an honest-to-God hippie. With a baggy T-shirt, plain jeans and flowers in her hair, Lewis commanded attention with her other assets – her powerful voice and stage presence. She cooed where she should coo, and she belted righteous sermons when her Americana Soul called for it. She strutted up and down the stage, clapping her hands and engaging the crowd on her terms. She was adored, all right, but she earned it. And damn it, she made that baggy shirt foxy despite it all.

Her band – Farmer Dave, drummer Barbara Gruska, bassist JW, multi-instrumentalist Danielle Haim and guitarist/boyfriend/lucky guy Jonathan Rice – took the stage, while Rice warned the crowd they were risking damnation by seeing a rock show on a Sunday night. Lewis led them into an overcharged version of Acid Tongue’s “See Fernando”. The band proved loose and limber, and reinforced the decision to track and record much of Acid Tongue live.The set was varied and surprising, with Watson-Twin-era favorites (“You Are What You Love,” “Happy”) interspersed with the newer, more muscular material. In particular, “Jack Killed Mom” sounded fucking huge, swinging from the slower beginning to the freak-out stomp that closed the song with ease.

Rilo Kiley’s “Silver Lining” found Lewis on stage alone, only an acoustic guitar to accompany her. It proved to be a highlight, as the usually talkative Pageant crowd fell completely silent. Similarly, the band opened their encore with a stripped-down version of “Acid Tongue.” Arm-in-arm, the band surrounded a single microphone to provide Lewis with ragged, beautiful harmonies.Two new songs peppered the set: “Just Like Zeus” was a guitar-heavy jam, spouting Thin Lizzy solos and Jonathan Rice harmonies, while “Big Wave” was a total California song more akin to Rilo Kiley’s latest. When pressed for news on a new album, Lewis gave a coy shrug – but with songs like this, I’d bet it’s not far off.

Lewis didn’t necessarily look the part of sex symbol, but she wasn’t trying to – she simply chose to look and perform the role of freewheeling rock goddess instead. It’d be a shame to think the crowd didn’t learn something new about their idol that night. From what I could see, their hats were (literally and figuratively) off to her.

by Jason Stoff
[Photos: Amin Cárdenas Macias]

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