There was some serious star power on stage at the Jenny and Johnny show Wednesday night, and the boy just might have outdone his more famous girlfriend.
The State Room was packed due to the presence of the Jenny Lewis half of the new Cali-pop duo, no doubt, but Johnathan Rice proved to be every bit as entertaining as Lewis, if not more so. His energy was infectious, whether singing lead, trading lyrics with Lewis or delivering a surprisingly potent guitar lick. Perhaps Rice made more of an impression because I'd never seen him perform before, other than backing up Lewis on her solo tours. But it typically takes a lot for me to notice anyone else on stage when Lewis is involved, and Rice's performance managed that trick.
Joined by Rilo Kiley's Jason Boesel and Whispertown 2000 guitarist Tod Wisenbaker, Jenny and Johnny delivered the vast majority of their new album, I'm Having Fun Now, and the songs were delivered with surprising cohesion and confidence, given that the band had only played a handful of dates together before landing in Salt Lake City.
They opened with the churning jangle-rock of Rice's "Scissor Runner," the album opener, with Lewis on bass and adding lush harmonies to Rice's lead vocals. The sound was locked in from the get-go, and they segued easily into "Committed," one of the more rocking tracks on I'm Having Fun Now, with Lewis and Rice sharing the lead vocal as Boesel drove the song forward. "New Yorker Cartoon" slowed the pace for some semi-acoustic balladry before the band launched into the raucous, reggae-tinged Lewis tune "My Pet Snakes."
Lewis, Rice and Wisenbaker constantly traded guitars and all took turns on bass; Lewis even joined Boesel in a mini-drum session on "Slavedriver," a song full of loping grooves and dreamy synthesizers. When a sample misfired at the song's outset, Lewis cracked, "This is just like American Idol. It's ALL done to backing tracks."
Thankfully, that's not the case, and the Jenny and Johnny experience is an organic one, a pop show with just enough muscle to sate the rock kids. Rice's "Switchblade" ballad was a highlight, as was the duet on "Animal" that opened the encore. Lewis' "Big Wave," a centerpiece of the album, was a bit clunky Wednesday night, but that was long forgotten by the time the band tackled "The Next Messiah" from Lewis' Acid Tongue album, as well as the Emmylou Harris/Gram Parsons version of the chestnut "Love Hurts" to close down the show.
Even Rice and Lewis don't know what the future holds for this collaboration. Both have solo careers, and she still has Rilo Kiley on ice. But this much is clear after seeing Jenny and Johnny play together; Lewis seems to be having a blast in this band, and Rice is one to watch no matter what he does next.
(Photo by Ali Knutson)