Artists who for better or worse get pigeonholed as singer-songwriters usually don’t have much in the way of instrumental chops. And bands with sizzling instrumentation often don’t have much in the way of lyrics or vocal alchemy. But that’s what Jenifer Jackson brought to a hushed, rapt house concert in comfortable, congenial Upper West Side digs last night. Not that Jackson should be, or for that matter, is somebody who necessarily gets tagged as a singer-songwriter. It makes more sense to call her a magically protean bandleader, whether the band behind her is playing psychedelic rock, bossa jazz-tinged songcraft or newschool honkytonk – or oldschool honkytonk. She also happens to be one of the pioneers of the house concert circuit. This one was a typically eclectic duo performance with Kullen Fuchs, who didn’t bring what might be his best instrument, the vibraphone. But he did bring his guitar, accordion, trumpet, percussion and ukulele and showed off elegantly virtuoso chops on all of them. Is there any instrument this guy can’t play?
Since her cult classic 2000 debut, Slowly Bright, Jackson has been through a million incarnations and these days, rather than settling on Americana, Beatlesque bossa-pop, pastoral psychedelia or C&W, is likely to bust out all of those styles in concert and this was no exception. Her voice was plush and airy, and stronger than ever in the low registers, like Rosanne Cash with a wider sonic palette. These house concerts, she explained, have forced her to come out of her shell onstage, to be the raconteuse and generally hilarious presence that she is once she’s out of the spotlight. So there were a lot of explanations on where and how songs came together, Jackson reminding that nothing in her catalog is what it seems; there are always umpteen levels of meaning. So it was interesting to discover that the windswept, poignantly desolate anthem All Around was not a Gulf Coast tableau but a wintry New England beach scene inspired by a momentary break on Cape Cod during a recent tour, observing a giant predatory bird from just inches away.
The duo did that one on guitar and uke, Jackson artfully shifting the harmonies around: she never plays a song the same way twice. The ballad Heart with a Mind of Its Own, with Fuchs on accordion, became a blend of Kitty Wells C&W seasoned with Tex-Mex flavor – and an unexpected trumpet solo from Fuchs midway through. Likewise, Fuchs matched Jackson’s brooding vocals with his washes of accordion on the bolero-tinged southwestern gothic waltz A Picture of May. They reinvented an old favorite, the Beatlesque, ornate When You Looked At Me, arguably the best cut on Jackson’s full-length debut, as a big twin-guitar anthem. Later the two entertained the crowd with a droll country duet from Jackson’s forthcoming thirteenth (!) album. Guest violinist Claudia Chopek came up to add lush, dynamic textures and vivid solos on a handful of numbers, all the more impressive considering she’d never played with the group. Likewise, a guest flutist added aptly ethereal textures in tandem with Fuchs’ soaring horn on Whole Wide World, a tropical soul number.
As entertaining as the rest of the set was, arguably the best song of the night was a hypnotically dreamy, understatedly plaintive Americana waltz, After the Fall, from Jackson’s 2002 Birds album:
Love is an ocean
Love is a stone
Love is a wish that you make on your own
If all of these ghosts would just leave me alone
I know that I would be free
Can a song get any more universal than that?
Jackson’s current US tour continues; dates are here, with a return hometown show on Oct 21 at 8 PM at Hole in Wall, 2538 Guadalupe in Austin.