There are no stock cars here.
A surgically precise pit crew will not change four tires in 28 seconds.
Remembrances of Dale Earnhardt shall be postponed.
To put it plainly: this is not F1 racing. This is a rock show at the Abbey Pub in Chicago. That doesn’t keep Rilo Kiley founding member Blake Sennet from donning racing duds during the band’s July 21 show, however.
21 Jul 2003: Abbey Pub Chicago
Normally, of course, Rilo Kiley does not get NASCAR-themed press. No, most journalists instead turn their focus on the group’s other founding member, Jenny Lewis, and her Hollywood connection. Like Christina and Britney before her, Lewis was a child star. Well, “star” is perhaps a slight exaggeration; she did play Ben’s first kiss on Growing Pains, though.
Unlike Christina, Lewis avoided the pull of Orlando, instead opting for L.A. After teaming with Sennet, the two released a quiet little album on Barsuk Records (2001’s Take-Offs and Landings). One year later the band returned with a slightly souped-up sound, releasing their sophomore record The Execution of All Things on one of the hippest labels in the land, Omaha-based Saddle Creek (also home to Bright Eyes and the Faint). Ever since, the band has been on a steady rise, receiving promising attention in Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone for their Americana-infused tunes and restrained beauty.
The attention has not particularly affected the band, though. Tonight at the Abbey, they seem shocked by the ardent screams of their fans, but, perhaps thanks to Lewis’ past brushes with celebrity, good-naturedly so. With a mix of L.A. cool and Midwestern heart, Rilo Kiley inspires its fervent fan base. The Abbey is packed tight and sweaty, the crowd standing in the thick heat, oblivious to the temperature during the band’s almost hour and a half set.
The loyalty of the band’s fans also explains that aforementioned racing suit. According to the guitarist (who could be a stunt double for Crispin Glover), a Minneapolis fan approached them at their last show. Explaining that he owned an F1 racer, and noting that it was emblazoned with the Rilo Kiley name, he handed the group a bright red starter suit with the words “Exhaustion Girl” on its back and “Rilo Kiley” on its breast.
While Sennet waits until the encore to actually climb into the suit, and while the Abbey Pub is by this point almost unbearably hot, he still pulls the stifling fireproof bodysuit onto his tiny frame. He is, as he explains with a smile, already red hot.
He’s not the only one, though. Here, two words must be said of Jenny Lewis: Oh my!
Maybe that doesn’t properly sum it up. Let’s try again.
When one crowd member repeatedly yells, “I love you!,” guys nod their heads in agreement. Dressed in a tight black shirt and spandex, with a short red skirt cutting a bright swath across her middle, Lewis looks more like a modern day Demeter than a LA rocker. It’s not only that she’s a natural beauty, however; during Rilo Kiley’s set, she plays guitar and bass, a harmonica, some maracas, the vibraphone, and a handheld Casio keyboard. And sings lead (quite beautifully) on all but two songs.
Again, this time in three words: My oh my!
Lewis emotes in every way possible. During “The Good That Won’t Come Out”, she seems on the cusp of crying jags, launching verses with a cannonball’s force, singing, “Let’s talk about all our friends who lost the war / and all the novels that have yet to be written about them.” Still, at other times, she playfully stands back from her keyboard, playing one-handed, her red bangs hiding her eyes, her lip half-curled into a playful smile. It almost looks like she’s having fun.
Which would be appropriate. After all, Rilo Kiley’s beaten down messages often carry strong traces of hope. For instance, as Lewis pours herself into the schoolyard melody of “A Better Son/Daughter”, she sings quietly of “the weight crushing down on my lungs,” building slowly to a shout by the song’s end, belting that “you’re weak but not giving in / You’ll fight it.” Her voice is so loud it almost hurts. No, wait, it does hurt, but damn, it hurts good.
Despite the softness of its record, Rilo Kiley pens anthemic ballads. In concert, that’s clear. Guitars tearing and lyrics thrown about, the group splatters its audience with bare pleas for baseball cards and waking dreams, finding a way to jolt everyone from their pacific thoughts and take in the hard joy of life itself.