Is Johnny Jewel a control freak or is he trying to create a complete experience for fans?
Entering the Wonder Ballroom last Saturday night was to give yourself completely to Johnny Jewel. Although fans bought tickets to see the Chromatics on their Double Exposure Tour, the band’s first full-scale excursion in half a decade, the night was ruled by impresario Jewel and his Italians Do It Better label.
A garish, blinking red sign hung over the merch table, announcing the cost of vinyl, shirts and CDs. Large posters of bands on Jewel’s label lined the venue’s walls. Even the interstitial music between sets featured songs by the Chromatics and their labelmates. Isn’t that akin to a band wearing its own T-shirt while on stage? So, is Jewel a control freak or is he trying to create a complete experience for fans? Maybe it’s a little bit of both.
Though the Chromatics have been mostly dormant since their 2012 release, Kill for Love, save a few singles and appearances on “Twin Peaks: The Return,” their songs still loom large, especially for those of us who came up with indie music in Pitchfork’s late ‘00s heyday. Tickets vanished so quickly that promotors added a second night. The show was also a homecoming of sorts as Jewel used to live in Portland before absconding to Montreal. This is where he met singer Ruth Radelet and during an impromptu and heartfelt monologue near the end of the show, Jewel recounted the story of how he encountered the singer first on a bus and then busking downtown.
Throughout the night, flashes of film featuring Jewel and his various Italians Do It Better bands, interspersed with slides of slogans, flickered on screens on either side of the stage. The show saw Jewel doing double duty as he played in Desire during the second set of the evening, signature teardrops painted onto his cheeks.
By the time the Chromatics took the stage for their 90-minute, 15-song set, the audience had filled in the club, the front of the house packed in with fans. Both Radelet and Jewel seemed more relaxed and engaged than the last time the band came to town six years ago. Beginning with a one-two-three punch of “Tick of the Clock,” “Lady” and “Kill for Love,” the Chromatics played through the set, which featured both their best originals and a smattering of covers, with sharp precision. Radelet looked radiant and sounded great while Jewel worked himself up to the point of dripping with sweat.
If the Chromatics sound dreamy and distant on record, the live renditions of their songs turned into absolute floor-shakers. Sadly, much of the crowd didn’t bother to dance. It didn’t matter, though, because the show was captivating, up to the first set-ending cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” Radelet returned for a soulful rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” before the band finished out the night with “Shadow” and a cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (Deal with God).”
More than anything, Jewel and Radelet seemed happy and humbled to be back home and playing in front of an adoring crowd. Numerous times throughout the night, Jewel claimed the show was a special one for him. And by showing the face behind the well-curated mask, Jewel allowed himself to slip a little bit and suddenly the night began to feel more like a celebration than a calculated marketing ploy to get us to buy merch on our way out the door.