Singer/songwriter Jenny Lewis returned to the ACL stage full of joy – more specifically, Joy’All, her acclaimed fifth album. With a pair of previous shows under her belt (with her solo band in Season 40 and her indie rock band Rilo Kiley in Season 31), she clearly felt at home on our stage, decking it out in shiny red streamers and red lighting. Dressed in Western shirts and boots and coming onstage to a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” Lewis and her four-piece, all-women band treated the audience to a finely crafted, heartily performed set of smartly-written, rootsy pop rock.
The last time Lewis was here, almost a decade ago, she was supporting her third album The Voyager. She kicked off her latest ACL appearance with a gem from that album: “Just One of the Guys,” a delightful pop rocker that warmed up the crowd nicely. She followed with the pedal steel-laced, playfully melodic shuffle “Do Si Do.” “What a joy to be back here,” she exclaimed. “What a treat!” The sturdy rocker “She’s Not Me,” on which Lewis ascended the circular platform stage in the middle of the main stage, seemed to be an audience fave as well. “I want to clarify something about that song,” she said wryly. “She’s chill and I’m not!”
The band then banged out “Late Bloomer,” another melodic tour de force that achieved a certain Fleetwood Mac-like grandeur before drummer Megan Coleman and bassist Ryan Madora struck up an infectious groove for “Joy’All,” the irrepressible, irresistible title track of the new LP, with Lewis in constant motion on her mini-stage. Cranking back up, the band returned to straightahead rock for “Red Bull & Hennessey,” a love-to-loss number with epic solos from guitarist Nicole Lawrence. Augmented by keyboardist Jess Nolan on the organ, Lewis sat at her electric piano for the soulful “Heads Gonna Roll,” allowing the crowd to regain their energy while still appreciating the emotion behind the song.
“Head Underwater” returned to the overtly frisky hooks and alluring tunes (as evidenced by the audience taking a verse), before Lewis and the band performed a pair of songs from the new album, injecting a healthy dose of country into “Apples and Oranges,” with Lawrence doing her best pedal steel imitation on her Telecaster (despite her actual steel guitar being right there). To the people’s delight, Coleman laid down another groovy beat for “Cherry Baby,” which added a melancholy feel to its loping guitar pop. Contrary to what one might expect from the title, “Little White Dove” was not a fragile ballad but a husky groove, with a stop-start rhythm supporting Lewis’ mysterious lyrics about mother and child. “Psychos,” too, belied its title with a lush melody and a steel guitar-frosted rock arrangement.
As the next number began, the rotary phone atop Lewis’ piano rang. She answered and carried on a conversation with her dog, allegedly backstage, who demanded a joke. (“Why is it so hot at a Grateful Dead concert? Because their fans don’t work.”) That led to the sprightly new number “Puppy and a Truck,” dedicated to the pooch with whom she bonded during the pandemic. Following a directly rocking, melodica-spiced cover of indie rock band Girls’ “Lust For Life” (no relation to Iggy Pop’s classic of the same name), Lawrence returned to the pedal steel for “Essence of Life,” a glistening new ballad that really reinforced what a special songwriter Lewis is.
As the set started winding to a close, the band rode Coleman’s pounding beat for “Love Feel,” a joyous rock tune that earned rapturous cheers from the crowd. “A little shout-out to John Prine there,” Lewis noted. “Here’s one from way back when.” Accompanied only by Lawrence and Madora, Lewis climbed atop her platform once again to deliver the final address: a lovely cover of her former band Rilo Kiley’s “With Arms Outstretched.” She held the second to last note long enough to drive the audience into a frenzy of love and appreciation. Lewis waved to the crowd and exited in triumph. It was a killer return for a killer artist, and it’ll make a marvelous episode that will air this fall on your local PBS station as part of our Season 49.