From the arena scale of Roger Waters’ The Wall to the recent solo acoustic turn Okkervil River’s Will Sheff took with Black Sheep Boy, full-album performances run the gamut in terms of presentation. Making a record larger than life has a much different appeal than drawing it into something intimate and personal. But Jenny Lewis accomplished something special in her final night of three shows celebrating her January 2006 album, Rabbit Fur Coat, at Los Angeles’ Immanuel Presbyterian Church: she managed both.
Performing in a sanctuary on a Saturday night, with her audience tightly packed into pews, certainly invited intimacy. And Lewis, joined by the Watson Twins, like on the record, allowed the space to inform the set. Opening with the a capella “Run Devil Run”, the three sang while walking down the church’s center aisle, holding candles up to their faces, and using nothing but the venues acoustics for amplification. And some of the record’s quietest moments, including the title track, found the audience enjoying the building’s implied reverence. Rabbit Fur Coat has numerous nods to soul and gospel music, an aspect of the album that has faded from memory over the last 10 years, but for this performance, they were put front and center, as sharp and colorful as the stained glass that adorned the room.
The concert was also a rock show, complete with costume changes, special guests, and a healthy dose of showmanship on the part of Lewis. M. Ward, serving as opener for the evening, would pop up periodically throughout the set, dropping in a guitar solo on “Happy” or recreating his vocal contribution to the album’s Traveling Wilburys cover, “Handle with Care”. It all made for a particularly fulfilling recreation, as Ward had served as one of the producers on the LP. And for the evening’s big finale during a second set that included favorites from Lewis’ solo career and her Rilo Kiley output, Ryan Adams made an appearance to help send the audience off. Lewis even crafted playbills to be passed out to the audience, a small gesture that helped the concert feel like the event it deserved to be.
Rabbit Fur Coat came at a weird time where indie rock albums could gain a significant cult following without accomplishing any significant commercial hurdles, a task that seems harder in recent years. And the fact that there is still a significant audience for this record 10 years later speaks to a lot of things, including Lewis’ enduring relevance as an artist and the strength of the material, arguably the best of her career. The performance’s sharp attention to detail (the drum machine on “Born Secular”, the harmonica solo on “Handle with Care”) was not lost on the fans, and they reciprocated the evening’s spirit as Lewis and the Watson Twins finished Rabbit Fur Coat by walking down the church’s center aisle for an a capella reprise of “Happy”. Slowly, more and more audience members joined in the singing, stirring up a moving conclusion to the record’s closing song. It was a moment that felt as spiritual as the surroundings. It was a moment of both intimacy and grandeur.