“Voyager” Jenny Lewis Opens Three Rivers Arts Fest

Lewis on cosmic/acoustic guitar. photo: Rick Handler

Lewis on cosmic/acoustic guitar. photo: Rick Handler

A heavy early evening thunderstorm had just cleared Point State Park. The humid air was thick with olfactory notes of grass, flowers, Italian sausage, chicken kebab, and funnel cake. With the storm past, a crowd started to fill in the spacious common green of the park, eagerly awaiting the arrival of Jenny Lewis and her band to the stage for the opening night of the 2015 Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival. It was becoming evident that Pittsburgh loves Jenny Lewis. Hipsters, teens, girls with hoops, men with tattoos, and baby boomers composed the audience, cutting across many generational and demographic groups.

After singing and performing with Rilo Kiley for 12 years, creating hits like “Silver Lining,” the band broke up, and Lewis decided to strike out on her own again. It wasn’t easy at first as her father died, she suffered from severe insomnia, and her new album was overdue. As Lewis recounted in a “CBS Saturday Morning” interview, the reason for delay was that she was scared—she didn’t want the album to suck; she wanted it to be first-rate. The result of that quest is The Voyager, a top-quality album which includes the hits “She’s Not Me” and “Just One of the Guys.” The album, partially produced by Ryan Adams with an assist also from Beck, debuted at number 9 on the Billboard 200 chart in July 2014.

Lewis’ pleasant, melodic voice, ability to hold a note, nice appearance, and bouncy stage dances heighten her popularity. A former child actor, she starred in commercials for Toys “R” Us and Kellogg’s Corn Pops and in movies, including Troop Beverly Hills. Additionally, she played Lucille Ball’s grandchild on the TV show “Life with Lucy.” Her charm and humor have translated well into her music career. The new video for “She’s Not Me” affectionately satirizes some of her past roles. She also writes songs that smartly showcase contemporary American life and is a versatile instrumentalist, playing acoustic and electric guitars, as well as keyboards.

Pittsburghers love Jenny. photo: Rick Handler

Pittsburghers love Jenny. photo: Rick Handler

As the band members came out and took up their instruments, it was evident that the concert was starting. A moment or two later, Lewis strode out to the center stage mic. The crowd yelled and clapped a warm welcome. She was dressed beautifully in a lighter-weight version of her Voyager outfit—white pants and white jacket with pastel colors, stars and designs. With evening sun still a factor, Lewis sported a fashionable set of shades. She then launched into a Rilo Kiley hit, “Silver Lining,” immediately sparking the crowd. This song was followed by the first cut of the night off of The Voyager, “Head Underwater,” then by another Rilo Kiley tune, “The Moneymaker,” and “The Next Messiah.”

Surveying the large crowd, she commented she never thought “she would get out of Mr. Smalls,” where she played several times before, and then quickly added, “I love Mr. Smalls!” Lewis dedicated “With Arms Outstretched” to her late father, whom she said was born in Pennsylvania. It sounded beautiful with nice vocal harmonies. Next came “Rise Up with Fists!!” and “You Are What You Love,” two songs she performed with The Watson Twins previously. Also performed were “The New You” and “Pretty Bird,” which had Lewis making flying bird motions with her hands. She next strapped on the electric lead guitar for “Slippery Slopes.”

A very talented group. photo: Rick Handler

A very talented group. photo: Rick Handler

Her band members are all very talented musicians. The group includes Michael Bloom (music director, guitar, vocals), Megan McCormick (guitar, vocals), Thomas Macey Taylor (bass, vocals), and Joshua Adams (drums). Keyboardist Natalie Prass departed the band recently to pursue a solo career, and her spot was filled in capably by a new female keyboardist/vocalist. The sound mix was near perfect, not crazily loud, but powerful enough, and featured crisp, clear vocals.

Next up was the meat of the order with her two recent major hits off of The Voyager—”Just One of the Guys” and “She’s Not Me.” “Guys” featured Lewis on her colorful acoustic guitar, supported by a slightly poppy/country sound from the band. She even stood up on her cosmic-looking pedestal to look further out onto the crowd.

Lewis goes deep into a song. photo: Rick Handler

Lewis goes deep into a song. photo: Rick Handler

“She’s Not Me” commanded respect right from the get go, with a fast intro of lead guitar riffs, driving drums and keyboards, and funky bass line. Lewis especially shined on this song with her smooth, resonant voice, and ability to vocally emphasize certain words in the song. The fans were definitely enjoying it. It’s also fun to hear her sing the line, “I told you I cheated, and you punched through the drywall.” Lewis incorporated an audience sing-along for a portion of the chorus, and everyone happily participated. “Love U Forever” and “A Better Son/Daughter” closed out the set, and the band left the stage.

Lewis had some very pleasant interactions with the crowd—even throwing individual flowers out to the audience several times during the show. At one point, she pointed to a youngster who was made up in the same type of outfit she wears on this tour and called her, “her little voyager.” Another nice touch was when Lewis asked for a sign to be passed up that a young girl named Willow had written. It read, “My First Concert Jenny.” Lewis mentioned her first concert was “Love and Rockets, The Pixies, and The Cure,” and that seeing Kim Deal, the Pixies’ bassist, inspired her to consider a musical career. She then hoped maybe the two young people in the audience that she noted would be inspired by her as well and even form a band together. She also jokingly apologized to them for some bad words in her songs.

After about five minutes, Lewis and the band retook the stage and started the encore. First up was “Girl on Girl.” She humorously suggested it would be best not to Google that song title. The song featured a driving repetitive drumbeat with an increased time signature and, in certain points, had Lewis shouting “Girl on Girl.” “Portions for Foxes” followed, with Lewis singing “Baby, I’m bad news” while the band jammed.

Lewis and band mates harmonizing for "Acid Tongue." photo: Rick Handler.

Lewis and band mates harmonizing for “Acid Tongue” while under blue stage lights. photo: Rick Handler.

For the finale, Lewis played “Acid Tongue,” adding Pittsburgh to the lyrics and gathering the band together sans instruments for a vocal choir effect that produced lifting harmonies. They then all took a bow as the audience clapped and cheered. Her and the band threw more flowers out to the crowd, before again departing the stage. After a fun and lively 90-minute set that left the fans in an elated mood, it was apparent that Jenny Lewis loves Pittsburgh too.

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and a lover of great music.