Like Sarah Palin, Rilo Kiley-leader-cum-alt-country-diva Jenny Lewis had some onstage image-mending to do Thursday night: Her new solo album, Acid Tongue, isn’t quite the musical equivalent of a 3 a.m. phone call, but after Lewis’s prior under-her-own-name effort, 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat, it’s a letdown, mostly discarding her unique millennial introspection in favor of been-there 70s country-rock.
But when Lewis entered the Sixth and I Synagogue from the back, floating stageward in a dazzling floor-length green dress while cooing the a capella “Run Devil Run” with which she routinely opens concerts, she effortlessly commanded this most beautiful and holy of rooms. Even the fact that she kicked off the set proper with “Jack Killed Mom” — a bland, awkward stew of murder ballad and gospel rave-up — couldn’t really derail the momentum of her entrance.
Lewis used her siren-strong alto to better effect on “The Charging Sky” and “Rise Up with Fists!!!,” establishing a pattern for the 70-minute concert: The songs on which Lewis stood and sang (with and without guitar) were always better than the ones on which she sat and played piano. Her paramour, Jonathan Rice — he’s a guitarist in her shaggy-in-sound-and-appearance band when he isn’t making his own records — showed palpable chemistry with the star, dueting with her on the ecstatic “Carpetbaggers.” But all was prologue to when the band huddled around one microphone to harmonize on the new record’s aching, gorgeous title track. (“I wrote this song a while ago, but it kind of hung around,” she said, which was as verbose as she got all night.)
Later, Lewis and Rice convincingly cast themselves as the new Emmylou Harris and Graham Parsons, with a haunting cover of “Love Hurts.” The show’s unchallenged pinnacle, it followed a holy-rolling “The Next Messiah.” On disc, the number is overlong and overwrought, but in this setting, it felt visceral — uplifting, even. Maybe you just have to hear it the Messiah’s house.
A slightly shorter version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.