Rilo Kiley a tough act to precede at Abbey Pub

By Seth Mayer

How do you open for a band like Rilo Kiley? Opening bands are supposed to get crowds in the mood for the main act. Opening bands are supposed to sound a lot like the headliner, but not be quite as good. Opening bands are all about sparking the energy that should, hopefully, run throughout the show.

So who could have opened for Rilo Kiley at Abbey Pub last Thursday night? What band could have created the right mood for a band with so many varying tones and emotions? And thinking of someone who plays catchy, occasionally explosive rock music with an overlay of twangy country, such as Rilo Kiley, doesn’t quickly bring to mind any names.

As a result, Tilly and the Wall and Now It’s Overhead had a tough job. Tilly and the Wall, an Omaha band, played what can only be described as anti-emo, despite having a guitar player who seemed to be doing his best impression of Conor Oberst, their hometown’s most famous angst-filled musician. Tilly, however, played a sort of super-romanticized ’60s pop; think Apples in Stereo without distortion or being at all interesting. Despite a drum machine and Jamie W. (a member of the band whose job is tap dancing, according to the band’s website), the crowd was largely unmoved by their desperate struggle to be infectious. Even attempts at synchronized hand-clapping couldn’t get the crowd of hipsters to take their hands out of the pockets of their vintage jeans.

Now It’s Overhead was not any more successful at getting any kind of positive response from the audience. Label-mates with Conor Oberst on Omaha’s Saddle Creek Records, Now It’s Overhead tried to do the opposite of what Tilly and the Wall failed at doing. This Athens, Georgia band made hardly any effort to project charisma, and played downbeat synth pop that seemed only to lull the crowd into boredom. Unlike the pop of Tilly, meant to turn blasé indie rockers into twirling flower children, Now It’s Overhead played music meant to send those same people back to their bedrooms to dwell on emotional scars and write in their journals. Neither opening act succeeded in being much more than innocuous, and neither was able to get anywhere near energetic or engaging.

When former Saddle Creekers Rilo Kiley came on, it quickly became clear what it was that separated the show they played from that of the first two bands: frontwoman Jenny Lewis. With a voice that can project irreverence and anger, joy and playfulness, or sadness and desperation, Lewis is able to make what would otherwise just be a decent band rise to another level.

Rilo Kiley’s songs, unlike Tilly’s or Now It’s Overhead’s, don’t just hammer the listener with one emotion (for example, saccharine glee or abject misery); they successfully blend solid, upbeat pop with what are frequently nuanced, affecting lyrics. This alone would make them a solid group, but Jenny Lewis’ vocals are some of the most memorable and charming in pop music today. Lyrics that would, in the hands of most singers, be fairly uncomplicated throwaway lines (“It’s so fucking beautiful!”) take on an added dimension when sung by Lewis in a voice that somehow seems to suggest anger and longing simultaneously.

The music itself was more than a step above that of the first two bands. The hooks and energy of the music created an infectiousness that Tilly had previously strained for, and the lyrics and vocals made for an emotional depth and complexity that Now It’s Overhead had failed to achieve. Sometimes sounding like Loretta Lynn’s newest album, sometimes hinting at classic rock or Beach Boys-esque California pop, Rilo Kiley’s sound was even more bouncy and arresting in the live setting.

Culling songs from their best album, The Execution of All Things, and their good new release, More Adventurous, as well as some earlier material, Rilo Kiley were able to put together a very solid set list. Even the slower songs didn’t cause the show to lose much steam. The encore included Blake Sennett (the guitar player and co-vocalist) leading a half-assed, partially completed cover of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” but ended with the same liveliness that had been integral to the rest of their show. While the Abbey Pub never really exploded with the kind of energy that inhabits the room at the best of concerts, moments like Jenny Lewis’ singing as she came off stage and walked through the audience made it well worth the cost of the ticket.

The concert ended with Lewis imploring the audience to get out and vote. The contrast between the openers and Rilo Kiley seemed to bear some resemblance to the difference between the presidential candidates. On the one hand, there is single-minded dedication to one idea (in the bands’ cases, a single emotion) that is hammered home unrelentingly, while on the other hand there is nuance and complexity. I’d say the latter is a hell of a lot better in both cases.