Jeff Lewis Band Hold Audience Captive
Late Thursday night last week, students began trickling into Tappan Square to sate their curiosity about Jeffrey Lewis. Maybe it was the spindly, skeletal depiction of him on the flyers around campus, or perhaps his name preceded him all the way from New York City as an “anti-folk” musician who has performed with – and influenced – Kimya Dawson of the Moldy Peaches.
Either way, the enigma was aggravated by the band’s navigational troubles and confusion over time zones, and the audience was forced to wait a chilly hour and a half. The intervening time turned into an open mic with everything from lyrically sparse covers of “Toxic” and “Space Oddity” to original compositions including a passionate ballad about a murderous barber.
When the band finally arrived, the faces in the crowd had changed, but the overall gathering was undiminished. The group was composed of Jeffrey Lewis on sticker-covered guitar, his brother Jack on bass and Dave Beauchamp on drums. They have gone by a number of monikers, including: Jeffrey Lewis and the Heavy Hearts, Jeffrey Lewis and the Very Strong Swords (chew on that, Freud) and Jeffrey Lewis and the Creeping Brains.
They began to set up, except for Lewis, who launched into a cappella, rhyming ramblings. During his recitation, he clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on the balls of his feet as though giving a presentation in front of the class.
In many ways, the crowd was indeed like a captive class. Despite the age difference between those “at the front of the room” and those seated on the cool pavement, it felt very much like a fellow student was holding sway. The show’s ambience varied between that of a sleepover in your friend’s backyard, a (comic) book report and the raucousness you’d expect of a lo-fi folk-punk show.
Some highlights were the “low-budget videos,” essentially large comic books that Lewis flipped through and on which audience members shined flashlights as the band performed accompanying songs. The first of these was “The Creeping Brain,” a story about a brain that emerged from the swamp and slowly grew, causing devastation, but eventually uniting the peoples of the world. This is typical of Lewis’s songs — a dour outlook on life capped off with a glimmer of hope.
This periodic shift in worldview was also exemplified in the song “Seattle,” which the band played earlier in their set. The song is about trying to live on your art while feeling restless, out of place and as though you are waiting for your life to begin. The final stanza showcased Lewis’s whimsical equivocation: “Fighting for survival and I guess I must be winning / And my story is so long I can’t remember the beginning / Am I an optimist or am I a pessimist / If I say a half empty half full cup / Is half full / ...Of nothingness?”
Though his music often neatly pairs sincerely recounted anecdotes with the absurd, such as zombies, time machines and creeping brains, the songs took on a more educational bent as the show progressed. The audience was treated to another “low-budget video” called “The History of Communist China,” as well as a song approaching ten minutes in length titled, “The History of Punk on New York’s Lower East Side 1950-1975,” which was just that.
With such topical and stylistic variety, you might wonder how it all ties back to the genre of anti-folk. Lewis fielded a lot of questions about how he classifies himself as well as about how others classify him. I thought to give him a reprieve from that in my email interview, but it came up anyway, since the title of his most recent album Jeffrey & Jack Lewis: City and Eastern Songs (released in the U.S. Sept. 26) alludes to this ongoing question of identity.
“I got tired of people asking what ‘style of music’ I play, wishing there was a simple description like ‘Country & Western’ that would make sense to people as far as making clear the mish-mash that this band is about. ‘City & Eastern’ is my idea of what this ‘genre’ of music is,” Lewis said.
Describing exactly what is meant by ‘City & Eastern’ Lewis said, “It’s like local mountain folk music that has developed in New York City over generations the same as any regional music does — Jack and I grew up in New York City and just have this folk and punk and spoken word stuff all mixed up in us, the same way somebody in Tennessee might have their roots in the music there, the music they grew up hearing on their town streets. For us that’s noise and words and ragged rhythms, rap, Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, The Fugs, David Peel, the sound of subway trains.”
The people who had gathered to see the show did not seem overly concerned with how to classify Jeffrey Lewis and his band. Whether the audience was dancing and flailing or just bobbing and nodding, the music seemed to permeate everyone there. Not only that, but members of the audience represented residents of the town, Oberlin students and, since the show was added to the band’s MySpace, fans from the Ohio area. Maybe Lewis’ appeal is not as limited as he and others are inclined to think.