[18 April 2004]
Ever since Bruce Springsteen’s rise about a quarter century ago, authenticity in pop stars has become a fetish among consumers, and since the music business loves to give the public what it wants, it has snatched up whichever performers seem to have the most homegrown cred. If these stars are lacking in this department, the gap is bridged with careful image manicures. If these artistes stray from their original path, they explain it away with talk of a restless muse. Of course, it’s hardly The Boss’s fault if his fans don’t comprehend that any art involves artifice and that the authenticity they seek is an impossible standard, but it’s also hard not to sympathize with people who want something more out their heroes than the products of market research. They want someone who, if not quite authentic, at least never breaks their suspension of disbelief. And a lot of these fans like Jewel.
By now, her story is legend. Coming out of the Alaskan wilderness, Jewel decided that she was going to make her living by her music no matter what, quitting her day job to live in her van. Her wordy confessions, her unique voice, and her unearthly beauty earned her a strong enough following to net a record deal. About 10 years later, her bubble has deflated if not quite burst, but she remains a bankable commodity. Even if her latest album, 0304, alienated a lot of her old fans, it also gained her a bunch of new ones in key demographics, so it’s quite a bit too early to count Jewel out just yet.
But what about those old fans that didn’t know what to make of “Intuition”? Are they left with nothing but aging copies of Pieces of You to clutch to their collective bosom like Dylan fans did with The Times They Are A-Changin’? Well, not exactly. First, they can tune into to any lite rock station in the country and hear “You Were Meant for Me”, “Hands”, and “Standing Still” every day for the next 10 years straight. And second, they can buy Jewel: Live at Humphrey’s by the Bay, a concert movie shot before the release of This Way that seems like a bittersweet love letter to those poor fans that gave Jewel her start before being abandoned. Playing the first three-fourths of the set alone with her acoustic guitar, Jewel comes across as an old pro, giving the fans what she is sure they want. She sticks to the arrangements closely enough to satisfy the conservatives while throwing in enough curveballs to let people feel they’ve seen an adventurous artist at work. And though they come late in the set, the monster hits do appear. The camerawork is simple and solid, and the sound is perfect. Anyone looking for a document of the first part of Jewel’s career should find much to like here.
As this implies, Jewel is a solid entertainer, but she tries to pass herself off as a serious artist, and the clash between what she is and what she pretends to be is what can make her so grating. She seems like the kind of person who got whatever she wanted her whole life because she was pretty without realizing what was happening, thinking that the men hanging on her every pseudo-poetic line were entranced by her skill and not her impeccable breasts. If this was truly the case, then that process led her to dramatically overvalue her talents in any number of areas. For example, she tries to spice up “Who Will Save Your Soul” with extensive scat singing. That’s right, extensive scat singing. Make no mistake, she is not Ella Fitzgerald, and her wordplay, on full display throughout, announces just as boldly that she is not and will never be Bob Dylan. Until her band comes out for the final few numbers, the focus remains fixed on lyrics that would work better (or work at all!) with more musical distraction than Jewel’s mellow fingerpicking.
And speaking of distractions, Jewel’s rapport with her audience is warm to the point of creepiness. She comes out wearing a jacket that she instantly takes off to reveal a tank top, and if she is as surprised by the ensuing wolf whistles as she tells the audience, then she’s dumber than even her detractors imagine. A little later, after playing a couple bars of “Kiss the Flame”, she stops, tells the audience that she’s forgotten the words and asks for a volunteer to come up and whisper them in her ear as she sings. It’s a good bet that this happened every night of the tour, and your money’s equally safe if you wager that each fan honored in this ritual exclaimed, “Oh my god, I love you!” near the mic as the lucky woman on Humphrey’s does. Even the title of the DVD suggests Jewel’s sculpted earthiness as much as the snarled tooth she refuses to get fixed, as if Jewel and Humphrey were on a first-name basis, eating burgers and drinking beer before the show.
For the record, bonus material includes an “on-the-road video” for “Standing Still”, a few additional performances shot with uber-shaky handhelds, and an interview in which Jewel discusses her songwriting process, how much she enjoys being out of the limelight, and the value of staying true to yourself. Fans will love it.