Nothing makes a more refreshing start to the Labor Day weekend than seeing the cute, ever-talented musical couple, Jenny and Johnny, at the Great American Music Hall on Friday, Sept. 3.
Opening for Jenny Lewis – lead singer of Rilo Kiley and now solo artist extraordinaire – and Johnathan Rice – fellow solo artist and band member throughout Lewis’ Acid Tongue tour – was Farmer Dave Scher and his band. Friend of both Lewis and Rice through his experience touring with Acid Tongue, Farmer Dave and his band, who are promoting his most recent album, Flash Forward to the Good Times, perfectly set the stage for Jenny & Johnny with their country/folk sound.
The group – led by Farmer Dave and his clear, strong vocals – brought the audience back to the 1960s with its newfangled oldies sound, complete with some of the band’s attire and the token lovely lady on tambourine. Farmer Dave, however, added his own country twang to the otherwise heavily ’60s-inspired act with his vocals, as well as with a pedal steel guitar characteristic of American country music. This fusion – along with a violin – added some nice elements that differentiated his ’60s throwback band from many others, although it was often difficult to hear the violinist’s contributions over the strong pulse of the drums and the volume of the other instruments. All in all, Farmer Dave played a very entertaining set – even, at one point, singing to a skull, à la Hamlet – that left no doubts as to how or why he was selected to tour with Jenny Lewis and, now, Jenny and Johnny.
Granted that any second opener would have trouble topping the talented Farmer Dave, the next band opening for Jenny and Johnny, the Ganglians, did not even come close to matching Farmer Dave’s band, both in terms of sound and energy, and left the audience wondering who they were and why they were opening. The Ganglians, a lo-fi act hailing from Sacramento, took stage without so much as mentioning their name even once. The only introduction they had was when Farmer Dave introduced himself and his band and named them as the second opener before he had even begun his own set.
Forgetting the Ganglians’ name was probably as easy as forgetting their sound, which, live, gave no hint as to why they were opening for artists as talented and well respected as Lewis and Rice. After listening to songs on their MySpace, however, their status as second opener made a little more sense, seeing as their sound also possesses a heavy ’60s influence – but with more acid than either Farmer Dave or Jenny and Johnny. Live, however, the ’60s influence was lost among the band’s lo-fi effects, and the vocals sounded more like mumbling over muffled noise than anything. The Ganglians’ foursome did manage to play one or two songs that brought a little liveliness to their set, but, other than that, they failed to excite the audience – save for the lead singer’s epic, Pantene Pro-V-worthy hair, which, sadly, was more impressive than his band’s set.
After the dismal disappointment of the Ganglians, Jenny and Johnny finally took stage and restored the audience’s faith in good, ’60s-inspired music with their upbeat pop songs and painfully cute duets and small talk. Only their third live show as Jenny and Johnny – the pair has collaborated before on each other’s own work, but never as an official duo until now – to promote their new album, I’m Having Fun Now, which was released earlier in the week on Aug. 31, the pair brought its catchy, much-too-happy songs to a solid crowd at the Great American Music Hall for the second night in a row. Drummer Jason Boesel of Rilo Kiley fame was also present to add some heartbeat to the two’s new project. Farmer Dave even stepped in to help Jenny and Johnny with a new song, “One of the Guys”, which Lewis says is really the story of her life on tour.
For the entire set, Jenny and Johnny kept the audience entertained and happy with their head-in-the-clouds pop, although still varying the setlist by throwing in a rock song or more somber acoustic song here and there. Jenny and Johnny played the majority of I’m Having Fun Now, a rather short ensemble of songs that clocks in at only a little over 30 minutes. All of the songs they played were incredibly catchy and, for the most part, ridiculously happy, showing the audience that the two are indeed having fun collaborating and touring together. Furthermore, the setlist was not only fun, but it was also very well balanced. After a few very pop-y songs, Lewis took up a second set of drums alongside Jason Boesel to play something that sounded quite a bit heavier – and obviously more pulse-driven – than the previous tunes. Immediately following the double drumming, Jenny and Johnny cooled things off by playing the very acoustically soothing “Switchblade.” Later in the set, Jenny and Johnny brought things up a notch, playing a version of “The Next Messiah,” an early collaboration between the two that appears on Lewis’ Acid Tongue album, which rocked the house down and marked the highlight of the night, along with Rice’s interesting Muni story about the “I’m BEYOND therapy!” shirt he was wearing. Immediately following the rocking song, the duo toned things down again with an absolutely beautiful rendition of their 2007 duet, “End of the Affair.”
During “End of the Affair,” Jenny and Johnny showcased themselves at their simplest and most raw, dismissing the drummer and bassist and relying only on acoustic guitar, along with some very minimalist percussion, thanks to Lewis’ fingers tapping on her wine glass, and, of course, the two’s beautifully pure vocals. “End of the Affair” enabled the audience to hear both of the singers’ wonderfully clear and crisp vocals without having either of them drowned out by the heavier bass and drums, which was yet another highlight of the show.
After a few more songs, Jenny and Johnny wrapped things up with “Love Hurts,” which especially hurt the hearts of the pair’s fans. Normally, “Love Hurts” would not have hurt so much, but, with such a short set and no encore to follow it, the audience left feeling quite dissatisfied that the two did not play more. Right before ending the set, Lewis spoke of how difficult it is to play a live show based on such a short album, but, still, the two have such a long list of songs in their individual repertoires to choose from that this was no real excuse. Instead, it was a rather unexpected – and unpleasant – surprise to end the show so abruptly and with such finality.
The show as a whole, however, was very good, and it is quite obvious that Jenny and Johnny make a strong musical couple, although, at times, it seemed that Lewis was merely providing back-up vocals for Rice. Given that Lewis is so talented, with a beautiful voice that is a delight to hear, her voice – of all things – should certainly not be pushed to the background. If their relationship is anything like the music they present on I’m Having Fun Now, however, Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice make a lovely duo, but it is still uncertain as to whether they are stronger musically as individuals or as a pair. If nothing else, I’m Having Fun Now shows that the two are indeed having fun together, and the wonderfully pop-y music of the show and the album, for the most part, takes away some of the sting of an encore-less show and the focus on the duo as a whole rather than the individual strengths of its contributors.