all photos: Brandon Hirsch
If I harbored any trepidation going into Wednesday’s She & Him concert at the 9:30 club, I mostly blame Jenny Lewis.
Ms. Lewis performed here last summer before a similarly sold-out crowd of teenage girls and NPR faithful. It’s normally pretty hard to get worked up over Lewis’ music. She repackages various shades of vintage soft rock – AM pop, Laurel Canyon country, folk – and the results are pleasant, if slightly innocuous. But that night, with a backing band dressed to the nines in faux bohemian garbs, there was such a degree of self-conscious grandstanding that only a few songs in Lewis had already burned through whatever good will I could muster for her project. Cribbing from past is one thing, but blasting it through self-important rock theatrics – a sequined glove raised perpetually in the air and all – on top of it is another.
I braced myself for more of the same coming into She & Him’s first D.C. performance. Zooey Deschanel and Jenny Lewis are somewhat of kindred spirits: two Hollywood actresses earnestly trying to recreate their parents’ record collections.
But She & Him’s set – all 25 songs of it – was surprisingly loose and lively. Much credit here goes to M. Ward, the Him of this equation.
From the familiar flops of grey hair, Ward appears to have leant his own backing band to Deschanel, in what is assuredly a more lucrative endeavor. The weathered squad of session players injected much needed oomph into the more subdued arrangements (read: diminishing returns) of this year’s Volume Two. That album’s “Over and Over Again” and “Thieves” were given full Technicolor treatment, while “Don’t Look Back” and “In the Sun” benefitted from a punched rhythm section.
Ward himself seemed content to let Deschanel take the spotlight. He looked to her periodically, as if taking cues from her lead, despite playing on what we can safely assume are mostly his own arrangements. When Ward cut loose on a few guitar riffs (“In The Sun”, “Rave On”), he was heckled with adoring shrieks. While Ward’s most attractive feature had in past always seemed the warm crackle of his voice, his presence alone now seems sufficient to warrant fawning. Perhaps it’s the new gaucho mustache.
Openers The Chapin Sisters appeared two songs in, and aside from a three stretch that left Ward and Deschanel alone, they remained to provide girl-group harmonies throughout the night, particularly on numbers more indebted to the early ‘60s like “Sentimental Heart” and closer “Sweet Darlin’”. Much like Deschanel, they spent much of the time literally bopping along to the backing band.
That enthusiasm is the key component to Deschanel’s appeal as a frontwoman. The enjoyment she radiates as a performer is infectious, and it helps cover up what can be a waif thin stage presence. The voice was there, but eyes gazing off into the distance, an emotional connection with her songs’ themes never quite seemed to materialize.
Here we tread into some sensitive territory. Criticizing She & Him isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s about as well-received as dropkicking a puppy. They’re both cute and adorable and have done nothing to provoke you. They just want to be loved. Unlike Jenny Lewis, they perform with little to no pretense.
But it’s still valid to wonder how much She & Him is merely a well-executed genre exercise, and in light of that, how much we want to encourage such straight faced revivalism. Her taste is admirable and her aim is true, but her unwillingness to push beyond the most basic conventions of her influences places a clear ceiling on what she is able to achieve, and ultimately undermines our ability to connect with her beyond a shared appreciation of things past.
For at least one night though, most of the 9:30 Club was willing to accept She & Him at face value. And what an adorable face it was.
1. “Change is Hard”
2. “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today”
3. “I Was Made For You”
4. “Black Hole”
6. “Lingering Still”
7. “Me and You”
8. “Take It Back”
10. “Ridin’ in My Car” (NRBQ)
11. “Over It Over Again”
12. “You Really Got a Hold on Me” (The Miracles)
13. “Brand New Shoes”
14. “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” (Joni Mitchell)
15. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (Beach Boys)
16. “Sentimental Heart”
17. “Magic Trick” (M. Ward)
18. “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” (Skeeter Davis)
19.“ In the Sun”
20. “Don’t Look Back”
21. “This Is Not a Test”
22. “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?”
23. “Fools Rush In” (Ricky Nelson)
24. “Rave On!” (Sonny West)
25. “Sweet Darlin’”