Two nights ago, I caught a great show at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse—up-and-comer Benji Hughes opened for one of my favorite artists of the last few years, Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis.
COUSIN IT CROONS THE BLUES
Unlikely rock ’n’ roller Hughes—signed to New West Records—is a former house painter from Charlotte, N.C. Lucky for us, he’s traded in his brushes, and now spends most of his time singing and writing songs. Hughes comes up with some incredibly catchy melodies for his heartbroken tunes, and the music provided by his band is perfect, sad-eyed accompaniment (as evidenced by set standout "All You've Got to Do is Fall in Love").
More importantly, though, Hughes is a sophisticated, singular talent, his deep croon simultaneously evoking Dean Martin, Roy Orbison and Morphine’s Mark Sandman. Surreally, all of this is delivered by a man who looks like a cross between a Lynyrd Skynyrd roadie and Cousin It from The Addams Family. Hughes clearly impressed the slowly swelling pre-Lewis crowd—I expect many of them will be back next time he’s in town as a headliner.
While mainly known for her work with Rilo Kiley, I’ve always connected more with Jenny Lewis as a solo artist. This is mostly because of the rootsier sound and the stream-of-consciousness lyrics that very personally tackle such fertile philosophical topics (family, God, love, dysfunction, doubt, the afterlife, free will, relationships, regret, etc.)—it’s as if you’re a temporary guest in Lewis’ head while she tries to sort out her existence; you become a co-star in the film Being Jenny Lewis, and you crawl through a mysterious portal and can look through her eyes and see all the beauty, horror and quirkiness of this world as she sees it.
Lewis’ touring band—including guitarist Blake Mills (Simon Dawes), “Farmer” Dave Scher (Beachwood Sparks) on lap steel; and Lewis’ boyfriend, solo artist Johnathan Rice, on guitar and vocals—is one of the best I’ve seen backing a solo artist in a long time. In fact, Lewis and company functioned more as band, than a singer/songwriter with some hired guns.
Early on, they offered a fully juiced rendition of “The Charging Sky.” When Lewis added emphasis on the lyric, “It’s in the belly of the beast / In the Atlanta streets!” the packed house erupted with cheers. Later in the set, Lewis traded vocals with Rice on sexy two-step “The Next Messiah,” accompanied by Scher’s frantically pulsing steel-guitar licks, which sound like lost slide-solo takes from Beatles deep cut “For You Blue,” off Let It Be.
The title track to Lewis’ latest, “Acid Tongue,” is a sober look back at a period of intense seeking, perfectly capturing both the fleeting wisdom and overwhelming exhaustion that can materialize in the wake of such journeys. At the show, while Lewis sang and played acoustic guitar, the rest of the band gathered around one mic, creating a pillow of vocal harmonies reminiscent of little-known Georgia band Cowboy, who released two albums on Capricorn Records in the early ’70s, coming off like a more downhome, Southern version of Crosby, Stills & Nash.
The highlight of the show, though, was Rice and Lewis’ achingly gorgeous duet on Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts.” The definitive version of this standard—originally performed by The Everly Brothers, popularized by Roy Orbison, and later cheesed up by ’70s rockers Nazareth—is surely the heartbreaking country duet by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris on Return of the Grievous Angel. I’d put Lewis and Rice’s stripped-down rendition right behind them. Accompanied only by acoustic guitar, their voices floated out into the room, tangling endlessly, breathtakingly around each other. It was enough to make your bones quiver and creak, like Western white pines in a gale.