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Tonight, New York anti-folk pioneer and sometime-cartoonist Jeffrey Lewis is just one part of Jeffrey Lewis and The Jackals, presumably getting bored with “and the Jitters” or just perhaps just the plain old “Jeffrey Lewis Band”. Whatever the name, Jeffrey Lewis has, in my experience, not been a man to disappoint and tonight is no exception.
Playing to a rather rammed Scala, the audience is made up several hundred people of varying ages (a few follically challenged heads amongst the long-hairs), and each one waits with baited breath for the man who so amusingly sings and strums songs about Leonard Cohen's oral sex and being sexually assaulted by a Will Oldham lookalike on the New York Subway. On top of all that, he's an artist still able to poignantly capture the worries, anxieties and realities of the modern human psyche with bags of wit and whim; demonstrated tonight by the melancholic 'Moving' (you close the front door and you lock it/ drop the key back through the slot/ sure hope there's nothing you forgot) and 'The East River', where Lewis' voice and briskly finger-picked chords which emanate from his battered guitar form the soundtrack to the autobiographical romantic inadequacy of an 'unloved clown'.
Lewis is, in roughly equal parts, a story-teller, musician and comic book artist, and it wouldn't be a Jeff Lewis show without the atonal narration of one of his convoluted and colourful comics; it'd be like a Metallica show without a single masturbatory guitar solo - it just shouldn't happen. The flip-book may be hard to see from all the way up here, but the beauty of Lewis' work lies mainly with the words. Jeff regales all with the newest instalment in his 'Complete History of Communism' series, though this time Part V is, ironically, incomplete but at the same time amusingly and surprisingly informative; who knew so much about Kim Il Sung, huh? If kids in schools were taught like this school days would genuinely be the best days of your life.
Appropriately using a passage of songs from 12 Crass Songs to bridge the gap in his set between the plucked and the punk, Lewis singing Crass is hit or miss. 'Systematic Death' has a nice little ditty complete with male-female ping-pong chorus and 'I Ain't Thick, It's Just A Trick' has its lyrics adapted for our times to fit in a Sarah Jessica Parker reference. It sounds like Jeff, it looks like Jeff, but without Lewis' own lyrics it means that the element which makes him so appealing is strangely absent.
Cuts like the raucous 'The Man With The Golden Arm', the anti-acid anthem 'We Don't Want No LSD Tonight' and 'Art Land' see Lewis' music again take another dimension; he's not just some American artist guy with an acoustic guitar; he can get the throngs dancing and play a guitar solo or two. Neat. 'Back When I Was Four' is a typically fanciful and futuristic extended life-story which sees Lewis' character outlive everyone he ever knew and find comfort in an unnamed goldfish and a million rubber skeletons; it, like the un-aired 'Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror' and 'Gold' are an extension of Lewis' talent and penchant for cartoons, but this time lyrical. Even when the guitar is ditched for the encore of a pair of poems he still captivates us all.
He may be thinning on top and the wrong side of 30, but Jeffrey Lewis is undoubtedly the current king of hip and quirky anti-folk.
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