It was a bittersweet night for rock ‘n’ roll on a recent Thursday evening in the City of Angels. Spirits were high as indie rock queen Jenny Lewis and her Watson Twins compadres were set to kick off a three-night run celebrating the ten-year anniversary of Lewis’ first solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat (on which the Twins backed Lewis with their alluring harmonies.) But classic rock fans were feeling a tremor in the Force upon word of the news that Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner had left the Earth earlier in the day.
The 74-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer had apparently been in failing health for a number of months, having been MIA for Jefferson Starship’s show at the Santa Monica Pier last August. Yet the incomparably influential guitarist/songwriter had also been on something of a career resurgence since 2008 with a revived version of Jefferson Starship that got back to its glorious psychedelic rock roots by mining the classic Airplane material with rock goddess Cathy Richardson. Those songs and the “San Francisco Sound” that Kantner and his cohorts pioneered in the 1960s helped alter American culture forever. This is a gift that all modern rockers owe a debt to, especially those with a fondness for the psychedelic counterculture.
It seemed appropriate therefore to have a chance to take in a rock sermon in a genuine church setting on this particular evening. Some music fans may think of Lewis as more of a pop rocker, but they would be guilty of failing to see the big picture. Lewis’ 2008 Acid Tongue LP left no doubt that this is a gal who knows something about psychedelic rock too. Further evidence was apparent on 2014’s Voyager LP and so Lewis has come to occupy a relatively unique space bridging melodic indie rock with atmospheric psyche rock.
The show had no doubt been planned out well ahead of time, yet it felt like there was some kind of synchronicity in the air with a handful of moments that seemed dedicated to Kantner’s voyage to the great beyond. Such is the spiritual power of rock ‘n’ roll, where decades of magic moments resonate in the space time continuum, forever influencing what comes from disciples attuned to the genre’s remarkable history.
M. Ward’s band opened the show with a solid set, although many patrons were taking it in from the concourses since no beverages were allowed in the cathedral seating area. But the band sounded great as M. Ward always does. From his solo work to She & Him to Monsters of Folk, Ward is always an ace in any band’s deck. There seemed to be a sense of reverence in the air from the beginning of Lewis’ show. As the lights dimmed, Lewis and the Watson Twins came down the aisle from the rear of the house singing “Run Devil Run” acapella with Lewis carrying a candle that seemed to honor the departed.
This led right into “The Big Guns”, with further rock reverence as Lewis sang “I’m not betting on the afterlife, Then you kiss his lips, He forgives you for it, He forgives you for all you’ve done… Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on me, Cause we’re tired and lonely and bloody…” The synchronistic eulogy continued on the shimmering “Rise Up With Fists” as Lewis sang “Like when you wake up behind the bar, Trying to remember where you are, Having crushed all the pretty things, There but for the grace of God go I…” With Kantner known to be have been battling some alcoholic demons, the song seemed almost as if it were about him. But then of course the angels and demons that populate the rock world transcend the decades, having touched countless artists.
The Watson Twins are known for their own vocal shimmer, such as on their overlooked 2008 album Fire Songs and their presence added an extra dimension all night. They danced in unison for much of the show, while backing Lewis with their siren-like harmonies. “The Charging Sky” was a prime example, with some pedal steel guitar elevating the melodic bluesy vibe higher still. This vibe continued with the Western feel of “You Are What You Love” as Lewis and the Twins continued to captivate the congregation. The ladies exited during a jam with Lewis then returning for a solo acoustic rendition of “Rabbit Fur Coat”. Then the whole band as well as M. Ward returned for a soaring take on “Handle With Care” that saw much of the congregation rise up out of their seats to dance to the Traveling Wilburys’ classic.
Rabbit Fur Coat was played in its entirety with a short set break then followed by a second set billed as “Voyage Through the Past, Present and Future”. The second set hit a slight snag early on when Lewis messed up the intro to Rilo Kiley’s infectious “Silver Lining” and stopped so the band could start over. But she won extra culture points when she first related a charming tale about how she had just gone to see Phish for the first time at Madison Square Garden in New York City during their annual New Year’s Eve run. She said she didn’t know any of the band’s songs but felt like she “was on another planet”, and that she was going to take a page from [Phish guitarist] Trey’s book and just acknowledge that she screwed up so she could start over and do it the right way. This led to a splendid “Silver Lining” that had the audience dancing in the aisles again, with some dreaming of Lewis sitting in with Phish this summer (perhaps on a Jefferson Airplane cover to honor Kantner that would need a Grace Slick).
The whole set sparkled as it was clear that Lewis and the Watsons were having a fabulous time and their voices sounded simply glorious with the cathedral acoustics. “The Voyager” was a peak moment that seemed to resonate as a deep eulogy for Kantner as Lewis sang “Nothin’ lasts forever when you travel time, I’ve been sippin’ that Kool-Aid at the cosmos, ‘Cause the voyager’s in every boy and girl, If you wanna get to heaven get out of this world…” When the Twins chimed in on the chorus, it felt like an angelic choir was assisting Kantner to heaven, which was rather spine-tingling. Following with the melancholy psychedelia of “Pretty Bird” was a masterstroke, with Lewis proving throughout the set what a master set crafter she is.
The new “Red Bull and Hennessey” glimmered with a mid-tempo psyche-blues vibe that seemed to represent the “future” portion of the show in stylish fashion (though this reporter recommends mixing that Red Bull with Deep Eddy sweet tea vodka for a tastier cocktail experience.) Lewis charmed again on the closing “She’s Not Me” and the fact is that there are few ladies in rock who bring as much talent, charm and mojo to the stage as Lewis does.