I spent most of my evening trying to figure out what to say to the guy in the glasses and sportcoat.
We were watching Rilo Kiley play the Wiltern, the last date of their American tour and I was enjoying myself. He looked a little out of place, arms folded across his chest, squinting through his spectacles. While most of the hall was rocking along with the quintet onstage, he was observing, watching carefully.
They were on fire– getting their singles out of the way quick into the show. I figured they’d save “Portions for Foxes” until the end, but they burned through it three songs into the night. And it only got better from there.
From the live recordings I’ve heard, Jenny Lewis has a hit-or-miss voice, sounding like an angel on good nights, a scratchy yowler on the off-ones. This was definitely a good one, as she paced back and forth, her white Stratocaster hanging low enough to cover the hem of her tiny little yellow dress. Better than I’d ever heard her, stronger even than on the albums, she powered her way through the aggressive set with confidence.
“Man, I thought that was just going to be a bunch of folk singers sitting around on stools,” Rebecca told me later. “I guess I was wrong.”
Blake Sennett, who looked rather similar to Alex P. Keaton in his sweater vest, ripped licks into the air out of his thinline Telecaster, switching from smooth little trills on “It’s a Hit” to the spine-tingling stabs that make “I Never” so memorable. While Jenny fronts more of the songs, it’s his guitar work that holds those tunes together and every time his fingers walked down the fretboard, my hair stood up on end.
About halfway through, the guy sitting next to me asked if I was a fan. Sure, I told him, I like ’em a lot and how about yourself?
“Yeah, they’re pretty good,” he said, hanging on the words a long time before speaking again. “The singer’s my goddaughter.”
Before he’d said that, I’d been trying to figure out how to write about the show, which started blowing me away about ten seconds after it began. I was leaning toward making a No Doubt analogy, since both bands have attractive, daringly dressed female singers who used to date another player in the group, edgy pop sensibilities and a fondness for horns and occasional slide guitar. That would seem like a flattering comparison, given No Doubt’s gargantuan success, but it’s an unfair prism.
Rilo Kiley is much better than No Doubt.
The quintet pushes more boundaries, explores more territory. Sunday’s show ranged from joyous acoustic numbers to dark electric jams. The intro to “The Execution of All Things” shook things deep inside my body and “Arms Outstretched” felt like a road trip with a wide open highway and floored accelerator. They managed to play almost every song that resonates on their three albums, closing the show by transforming “Does He Love You” from a kinda annoying chamber music piece into an emotional rocker.
All the while I wondered when the show would flame out and lose momentum. In a way, I was looking forward to it, because it would quiet down enough for me to talk to the guy and tell him what I thought of his goddaughter’s music. But it never did– they threw out their conventional way of playing songs and reinvented just about everything they played into something different and new.
After bringing the house down with the regular show, I had no idea where they could take things to top it. A guy asked me once “how do you do better than a grand slam?” and I wondered the same thing. After blowing me away with “Pictures of Success” and a scat/trumpet jam-fueled “Ripchord” that culminated with Sennett dancing around, strumming his acoustic with energetic frenzy and screaming “look at me, ma!” I couldn’t figure out how they’d better the perfection they’d improved on.
I’ve seen a lot of good shows in my life, but this was something else. When they brought Debbie Gibson onstage to sing an earnest, rocked-up version of “Lost in Your Eyes,” I was strangely charmed. When she stuck around, joined by the opening acts, to blow the roof off the place for a completely reverential cover of Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door” turned into a ukelele jam, it hurt me because it was just so amazingly good.
By the time he got up to go, I’d figured out what to say to the gentleman. He took off his glasses, straightened his sportcoat and began to stand. I laid a hand on his arm and he turned to me.
“If you should happen to run into those guys later on,” I told him. “tell them this was the best show I’ve ever seen, by any band, any time, any place.”
He broke into this huge, beaming grin, shook my hand and left.