As cult singer-songwriters go Jeffrey Lewis would seem to be positioned firmly at the accessible end of my hallowed Sliding Scale of Rock’n’Roll Mystique and Preciousness, judging by his visibility and willingness to shoot the breeze with punters at last night’s show at The Junction. He’s there manning the merchandise stall (on which good ol’ fashioned vinyl albums were conspicuously featured) before the gig starts, he actively solicits requests from the crowd, and he’s on stage in full view for a good twenty minutes setting up equipment in the interval, a chore that normally falls to thankless and anonymous roadies. You can’t somehow imagine Van Morrison fiddling about with guitar leads and projectors in front of a paying audience.
But then a large part of Lewis’s appeal has always derived very much from his hands-on and do-it-yourself approach to his work, as witnessed by his charmingly lo-fi and rambly collections of acoustic guitar powered punk-folk confessionals and his colourful hand-drawn comics and cartoons. His material always sounds fresh because it sounds like he’s making it up as he’s going along, with surreal, naive and touching thoughts, and rhymes both obvious and delightfully contrived, forming in his head so rapidly that it’s like he has to trip them out in his nasal monotone at a hundred miles an hour lest they evaporate. This ethos extends to the on-stage dynamic between him and his backing band The Junkyard, which consists largely of good-natured and meandering sparring between Lewis and his brother Jack as to which song they’re going to play next and whether they can remember how it goes, but once they start playing it’s obvious that the artlessness is largely superficial – they’re actually a pretty tight outfit and the slightly spaced-out New York bohemian vibe is a cover for some surprisingly imaginative and varied settings for Lewis’s songs of awe and vulnerability. Jack’s bass playing is positively nimble in places and he and drummer Dave Beauchamp supply full-blooded backing vocals as required, with multi-instrumentalist guest Kristin Andreaassen filling out the sound on violin or tambourine or harmonica or dinky toy keyboard. Lewis even uses some effects pedals to get away from his trademark fast-picked arpeggios – some of his playing sounds downright heavy metal. The songs I knew (like How Can It Be and Don’t Let The Record Label Take You Out To Lunch) sounded great, and robustly catchy, and so did the many I didn’t. It’s amazing how many words you can cram into a song and still make it singalongable.
So far so good, but the real highpoints of the evening were the four occasions when Lewis turned his projector on and fired up Powerpoint on his MacBook for some audio-visual content, the visuals being largely his own drawings. First, we got a presentation to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, in which Lewis rhymed his way through the key flashpoints to a backdrop of geo-political cartoons illustrating events, and later the tale of a three-headed extraterrestrial visitor’s bewilderment at the concept of night, day and sleep. There was a splendid tribute to legendary songwriter Daniel Johnston in the form of a proposed title song to his upcoming video game Space Ducks, and best of all a ten minute lecture on the history of New York punk rock from 1950 to 1975, narrated in the form of limericks and punctuated by the band playing uncannily authentic sounding snippets from the catalogues of the likes of The Fugs, The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls and Patti Smith (and if you’re wondering if 1950’s not a little early for punk, that’s the date of Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music). This last section was worth the ticket price alone.
The group played for nearly two hours, although it didn’t feel anything like it, and eschewed an encore, though the audience would certainly have been up for one. A brilliant gig by a multi-talented and genuinely likeable guy. And I’ve got no idea how he remembers all those words.
P.S. Just remembered – they started the set with a cover of Peter Stampfel’s Hoodoo Bash, from the indispensable Have Moicy! So another gold star there.