I’m not, in day to day life, Jeffrey Lewis’ biggest fan. It’s not because I don’t like his music, I just never spent any time with it for some reason. I did however see him supporting HRH Stephen Malkmus last year in Tripod, and I was enthralled.
Take one part Moldy Peaches-y New York anti-folk, add in one part US slacker punk. Mix in an obsession with comic books, and take away most of the cocaine, pills and alcohol that Adam Green seems like he’s on. Add some bizarre, image-accompanied factual songs about the history of communism or, on that occasion, the Creeping Brain.
That’s Jeffrey Lewis, or the ingredients for Jeffrey Lewis in any case. Saw him in Crawdaddy on Wednesday night, and it was surprisingly packed out.
The support acts were:
Ugly Megan, the Waterford duo who I am a long-term admirer of. They seemed a little unpracticed, but you can’t be mad at music like that. The song about Mahk Wahlberg, the song about Brian Boru, the song about a American lad with unappealing trousers (this one is by Estelle) and The High Life were all worthy of smiles. And if that reference to the crowd not writing mean things on their blog was in any way a reference to me – rest assured Ugly Megan, it’d take a disaster or a serious exploration of crunk music.
The second band was Don’t Move! who were from Coventry. They were kinda like the Coral, with some Orange Juice-ish funk and vaguely Arctic Monkeys stylings. Not a fan of them at all, and if I wasn’t so studious and just a reviewer, I’d mention that they were certainly not pretty boy English indie lads by any stretch. No sir. Not pretty boys.
By the time Jeffrey Lewis was on, Crawdaddy was jammed. I was squashed more than I’ve been since Radiohead in Marlay Park, and jostled quite a bit too. I had no idea he was so popular. I’d go so far as to say that there were probably as many people at Jeff Lewis in Crawdaddy as there were at Stephen Malkmus in Tripod. Which is strange, because Jeff Lewis was there too.
He was best when he was wordy, which might be a weird thing to say, but it’s true. There were points when, accompanied by his brother Jack, a female keyboardist/backing singer called (maybe) Fletcher and a male drummer of unrecalled name, he indulged a little in the band thing. After all, this was technically “Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard”, not just Jeffrey Lewis.
But if he was to truly play to his strengths, he wouldn’t bother with the lengthy, feedbacky intro to ‘If Life Exists’. And he wouldn’t cover Malkmus b-sides, which are fine (if not quite as good as Malkmus album tracks) when infused with the raised-eyebrow mastery of the man himself, but kinda just regular songs when they’re being played by a fairly unremarkable four-piece and sung by the brother of the guy whose name is on the tickets.
He was best playing ‘Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song’, probably, because it’s an incredible song. Some stuff off the new album, Em Are I, was great too. The lyrics are a little more openly wistful and less openly funny than previous stuff, but that’s not a bad thing. It is, as someone pointed out to me, a symptom of growing old, which is a disease that afflicts comic-worshipping anti-folk singers the same way it affects civil servants.
‘To Be Objectified’, in which Lewis laments that “going bald is the most manly thing I’m gonna do”, sounds like the moment when anti-folk emerged out the other end of its trip to Strokes collaborations and Juno soundtracks and saw its own mortality.
It’s interesting, though not surprising given how self-analytical he tends to be in his music, that one of Jeffrey’s illustrated documentary pieces this time was about the history of punk rock music from 1955-1975. It starts with a folk singer putting out a compilation on the Lower East Side and ends with a complaint that the English stole all the credit for inventing punk, managing to seamlessly connect the growth of the NY folk scene to the eventual start of punk shows in CBGBs. For a guy who plays Crass covers on an acoustic guitar, that’s not just tacit self-justification, that’s a creed.
And it’s the earnestness that makes Jeffrey Lewis so good. The fact that he can tell the same story, whether as an introduction or as the song itself, every night for his whole touring life and still make it sound like he believes in it the same way he did when he first thought it. And for a guy who has not only been to Ireland about 800 times but whose songs are even now including laments about the fact that he has no life at home because he’s on the road so much, that’s no small compliment.