There’s a lot to be said for how a person’s disposition stands up in the face of circumstance. Jill Sobule has seen her career take off with a huge radio single, “I Kissed a Girl” (off 1995’s self-titled album), only to have the sales of her follow-up album, the underrated Happy Town, flag to the point where her label dropped her. Still, through it all, and working for the most part in obscurity, Sobule has kept her sense of humor. (On her website, www.jillsobule.com, she tells of how she played the 4:00 PM slot at the Lilith Fair, when the tickets said “show starts at 5:00.”) It’s a good thing, because she’s one of the warmest, funniest songwriters out there. Witness the songs “Heroes”, where she complains that our heroes always have discouraging flaws (“William Faulkner: drunk and depressed / Dorothy Parker: mean, drunk, and depressed / And that guy in Seven Years in Tibet: turned out to be a Nazi”), or “Supermodel”, about her dreams of fame (“I wish that I was like Tori Spelling / With a car like her and a dad like her”).
February 10 saw Jill Sobule, still touring endlessly in support of 2000’s Pink Pearl return to the Tin Angel, where she has played, by my count, at least six shows over the past two years. It is also, I believe, the only venue even remotely close to Philadelphia where she has played in that time. Which makes sense, when you consider the venue. Depending on who you ask, it’s “intimate” or just “small”—it can’t possibly hold more than a couple of hundred people, and if you’re sitting in one of the good seats (important because the room is only a couple of feet wider than the small stage), you can pretty much just reach out and touch your favorite performer.
As usual, the show was a varied mix: favorites like “Bitter”, “Karen by Night”, “Heroes”, and “Mary Kay”; b-sides like “Jetpack” and “Big Shoes”; and a bunch of new songs she still needed the lyrics in front of her to perform. Oh yes, and she even played her Big Radio Hit, “I Kissed a Girl”. And one got the feeling that, as gifted a songwriter that Jill Sobule is, what was important was that she, and everyone else, had fun.
The venue suits Jill Sobule especially well, since she seems to delight in telling the stories behind songs, changing lyrics here and there to suit the occasion, and taking requests from the crowd (occasionally resulting in playing numbers she hadn’t thought about, let alone played, about in a long time, such as “Money Shot,” a song about a troubled porn actor). She has also always been one of the funnier performers around, and her sense of humor was fully on display. Some examples of what, you might would call “Jill Sobule’s Trademark Wit”:
(1) In the last verse of “Bitter” (from Happy Town), a song about, well, not being bitter in the face of others’ success, she replaced the line “and know the one who made it, made it because she was actually pretty good” with “because she’s a slutty Mouseketeer.”
(2) Jill told the crowd about a sitcom based on her life that was in development, and turned out awful when “they brought in these writers and it all turned into ‘Suddenly Susan.’” She also mentioned that she’s currently working on a sitcom that takes place inside a women’s prison, with Bea Arthur playing her cellmate.
(3) Since her usual accompaniment, Jim Boggia (more on him later), was out of town on the night of the show, Jill brought up a picture of him playing the guitar next to her on stage. She also called him from her cell phone, and tried to get him to sing to the crowd.
(4) After hanging up with Jim, she called her mom, and had her sing her part on the b-side “Big Shoes”. Then she told us funny stuff about her mom, and then looked relieved when she made sure that she’d hung up on her mom before telling the crowd about her.
(5) She explained that since she had a Big Radio Hit (“I Kissed a Girl”), people expect her to be rich and famous, so she wrote a song to explain her situation—“I live like a freshman; I still have a roommate.” (Sobule has incorporated the downtrodden thing into her shtick, and continues to play off of it.)
You get the idea.
That said, the only serious detraction from the show was the absence of Jim Boggia, who usually accompanies her for all the Philly shows. On stage, the two feed off each other, setting each other up and working the crowd. Boggia also appears to be one of those gifted individuals that, once he hears a song once, can play it; when he plays with Sobule, he is fond of launching into songs from all over the pop culture canon whenever she, or anyone else, mentions them. Boggia was out of town for the show, so (with the exception of her adventures on the cell phone) Jill had to go it alone. But, besides not playing the songs that sound better with Jim in accompaniment (Happy Town‘s “Love is Never Equal”, or Jill Sobule‘s “Trains”), she didn’t let it get to her, and still played one hell of a show. (Some label, throw millions of dollars at her. Please!)
Another great thing about seeing repeated shows at the Tin Angel is that faces in the crowd start to become familiar, as Jill’s (distressingly small) group of devoted fans continue to show up and suppport her. (The guy who went up on stage and held Sobule’s lyric notebook for her was the same one who sang backup last time on “This Land is Your Land”.) And, of course, the audience knew all the songs, and genuinely appreciated all the little dips and turns she added. It was a fine show, the kind of show parents could (and did) take their 8- and 9-year-old daughters to, even if they did have to ask about some of the words being used. (“Mommy, what’s a money shot?”)