The hopes were high, so I was ready to be disappointed. In a horribleJungian way, that probably just means I wanted to be, but still, Rabbit FurCoat is an incredible, beautiful album and one that I thought too frail, toodelicately pitched to come across live.
Partly, it was the record’sastonishing vocals, but it was also the songs themselves, carefully being somany different things at once, so precariously dangling over inferior singlemoods. Even in the studio, it’s almost too good to be true: a strangedouble-take of opinion, where once the record’s over, you can’t believe thequality hasn’t lapsed.
I was wrong, obviously – splendidly wrong. Lewis got round the problem ofmaking her music ordinary by staging her gig like a piece of theatre,beginning with a free programme: besides a set list and lyrics, there werehelpful biographies. Jenny Lewis “met the Watson Twins on a dare. Herhobbies include whispering and fidgeting”. Johnathan Rice “was raisedon the floor and ate crumbs from the table”. Chandra Watson built her twinLeigh “out of construction paper, sticks, chewing gum, and a matchingdress”.
Rice’s support, opening with a glorious tanked cover of BoDiddley‘s Who Do You Love, set the mood somewhere between 1955 and abottle of moonshine. When Lewis arrived, exactly fifteen minutes after Riceleft the stage, she was leading the Watsons through her audience in SouthernBaptist procession, singing the chilling album opener Run Devil Run – theharmonies still sadder than on record. All evening, the vocals were, ifanything, 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, whichexploded like the anthem it should become. In the last verse, Lewis wassmiling maniacally: “I’m in love with illusions/ So saw me in half / I’m inlove with tricks / So pull another rabbit out your hat.” The band – Riceback again on guitar, one Farmer Dave on lap steel, the Watsons singing andswaying – 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 hugelypersonal performance. Lewis said barely a word all evening – a thank you forcoming, a good-bye – but she was utterly engaged with the crowd. It may havebeen a highly-choreographed night – the main set closed with a mirrorprocession through the audience, to white noise and the cooing end of BornSecular; the encore finished dead on 10.30 – but it was none the lessmagical 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.