The hopes were high, so I was ready to be disappointed. In a horrible Jungian way, that probably just means I wanted to be, but still, Rabbit Fur Coat is an incredible, beautiful album and one that I thought too frail, too delicately pitched to come across live. Partly, it was the record’s astonishing vocals, but it was also the songs themselves, carefully being so many different things at once, so precariously dangling over inferior single moods. Even in the studio, it’s almost too good to be true: a strange double-take of opinion, where once the record’s over, you can’t believe the quality hasn’t lapsed.
I was wrong, obviously – splendidly wrong. Jenny Lewis got round the problem of making her music ordinary by staging her gig like a piece of theatre, beginning with a free programme: besides a set list and lyrics, there were helpful biographies. Jenny Lewis “met the Watson Twins on a dare. Her hobbies include whispering and fidgeting”. Johnathan Rice “was raised on the floor and ate crumbs from the table”. Chandra Watson built her twinLeigh “out of construction paper, sticks, chewing gum, and a matching dress”.
Rice’s support, opening with a glorious tanked cover of Bo Diddley‘s Who Do You Love, set the mood somewhere between 1955 and a bottle of moonshine. When Lewis arrived, exactly fifteen minutes after Rice left the stage, she was leading the Watsons through her audience in SouthernBaptist procession, singing the chilling album opener Run Devil Run – the harmonies still sadder than on record. All evening, the vocals were, if anything, better than when recorded, especially in the pure upper reaches ofBorn Secular – throughout which the crowd collectively held its breath.
They ran through Rabbit Fur Coat – the Big Guns, crazed, guitar-bruising;Happy, a haunting torch song for our times; You Are What You Love, which exploded like the anthem it should become. In the last verse, Lewis was smiling maniacally: “I’m in love with illusions/ So saw me in half / I’m in love with tricks / So pull another rabbit out your hat.” The band – Rice back again on guitar, one Farmer Dave on lap steel, the Watsons singing and swaying – drew breath and launched into the gorgeous swoop of Melt YourHeart. Perhaps best of all was Rabbit Fur Coat itself: Lewis alone on stage, and mesmerising.
Maybe the feeling was strongest then, but throughout this was a hugely personal performance. Lewis said barely a word all evening – a thank you for coming, a good-bye – but she was utterly engaged with the crowd. It may have been a highly-choreographed night – the main set closed with a mirror procession through the audience, to white noise and the cooing end of Born Secular; the encore finished dead on 10.30 – but it was none the less magical for that. When Rice returned to main vocals for a final, microphone-sharing, hand-clapping cover of Cold Jordan, it was a wonderful, joyful moment.