Rilo Kiley, with Benji Hughes and Lavender Diamond, the Greek Theatre, June 18, 2008
By Chris Martins
Photos by Timothy Norris
Rilo Kiley can be a touchy band for discerning denizens of this city. The oft-exaggerated Hollywood ties (“a band full of child actors!”), the early jump to a successful indie label specifically associated with another city’s scene (Omaha’s Saddle Creek, of course), the subsequent leap to Warner Brothers (“sellouts!”), and the nervous conjecture — stemming from so many solo projects and the not-so-secret former love affair of the band’s founding pair — that the group is forcing it somehow. All told, it paints a confusing portrait. Are they a local band? Were they ever? After five weeks on the road touring 2007’s exceptional Under The Blacklight, Rilo Kiley came home to The Greek.
Lavender Diamond. hoping for a lightning bolt
The crowd was disconcertingly sparse for the opening acts. Unlikely crooner Benji Hughes –a hairy beast of a man known (sort of) for a mumbly, honeyed voice and half-baked lyrics that humorously (sort of) explore love’s darker corners — staggered about the stage like a drunken bluesman, winning over a few with his slovenly, kitsch take on what Richard Hawley does so perfectly. Echo Park regulars Lavender Diamond were charming but never arresting. Their winsome and pretty country-tinged folk tunes are perfect for lazing porchside and really reveling in one’s reduced carbon footprint, but last night it was sleepy, with the bulk of the band’s energy materializing in the dippy between-song banter of singer Becky Stark. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had a lightening-bolt-powered stage?” Why, yes, it would.
But when Rilo took to the stage, all fears were quelled: As they launched into their second song — vamping, hard-rocking single “The Moneymaker” — it was clear that The Greek had been miraculously filled to the brim with cooly moving heads and shoulders. With a shimmering golden curtain and three well-dressed men behind her, Jenny Lewis began to slowly wind the attention of those bodies around her index finger. She was clearly the master of ceremonies, but led with more exuberance than attitude. It would have been nice to see Rilo Kiley’s Fleetwood-Mac-channeling new album come alive with full disco flourish — spinning mirrored balls and a heavy beat, with Jenny Lewis conducting her band at the tip of a marching baton — but it also would have been incredibly ostentatious. Instead, they played a warm set full of familiarity.
For every shrill scream and whistle produced when Lewis nuzzled up to her ex-beau/songwriting partner Blake Sennet for the chorus of “Breakin’ Up,” an unabashedly feel-good jam from Blacklight, there were ten more voices singing every single word of “With Arms Outstretched,” from 2002’s The Execution Of All Things, as Jenny dropped the microphone to dance while Blake played his heart out on an acoustic guitar. The new material was exciting, but the strength of their set, which pulled heavily from Execution and 2004’s More Adventurous, comprised moments like these: sing-alongs that only got louder as the night went on, and, despite the welcome presence of a trumpet-player for most of the songs, an intimacy that betrayed the fact that this was Rilo’s largest local gig yet.
And yes, I did say “local.” When Rilo returned for their encore, Blake attempted to introduce the song: “This is…,” he started, before getting hit with a fit of the giggles, “ahhh, fuck it!” and they played the opening chords of “Pictures Of Success.” The slow-burning half-sad song from their debut album, Take-Offs And Landings, was what first charmed us so about Miss Lewis and her ragtag gang of indie boys, and it’s that same feeling–wistfulness cut by stubborn triumph, a sort of whisper-closeness that prevails despite the breadth or reach of any given song–that keeps us welcoming Rilo Kiley back to the place we all call home.