Jenny Lewis @ UCSD

Tap tap tap. “Is this on? Hello? Check check check. Do you just wanna do it like this?” Jenny Lewis moves to the edge of the stage, her chorus (aka her band members sans their instruments) ringed behind her. She puts a finger to her lips, lulling the excited crowd into silence. And she held them completely enthralled with just her voice and guitar throughout a fantastic unplugged rendition of “Acid Tongue,” the highlight of an already great concert.

Some have denigrated Lewis’s sophomore album (as well as Under the Blacklight, the 2006 release from her band Rilo Kiley) for being derivative rather than delving into her own psyche as effectively as she has done, as singer and lyricist, on earlier solo and band records, and I understand where they’re coming from. Acid Tongue as a whole is not as lyrically sophisticated as More Adventurous, The Execution of All Things, or Rabbit Fur Coat. (That’s too pat an analysis, but a concert rundown is not the place to go into the relative merits of Jenny’s songwriting oeuvre.) But trust me when I say that watching her live, you won’t be able to help falling under her spell anyway.

After opening her set with “Jack Killed Mom,” a rollicking rock number about abuse, bullying, and matricide, she settled into a few songs from Rabbit Fur Coat, including “Happy” – a song I never thought would work in concert. She slowed an already slow song drastically from the record version, but gave such an incredibly emotion-filled performance that I doubt anyone felt it went on too long. The only danger was that she and the microphone might have to go get a room.

Some performers treat a gig so much as a performance that it all seems by rote and others get so into the music that the audience might as well not be there. Jenny walks the line between the two – she’s clearly performing (her acting background is obvious) and has specific pieces of stage business choreographed in advance, but there’s an air of spontaneity to it, too, as when the band went acoustic for “Acid Tongue.” Which may have been planned as well, but it certainly didn’t feel as though it was (and photos from other stops on the tour have a microphone, as in the shot above). On the other hand, she can get so deep into the music that you feel privileged to witness it, but she never forgets the audience – rather, she brings you into her intimate moments.

Acid Tongue may not feel as personal as Rabbit Fur Coat, but for a concert, it’s truly awesome in its variety. Right after the small brokenness of “Acid Tongue” came the huge Southern rock-inflected anthem “The Next Messiah,” its eight+ minutes filled with style shifts, fills from guitarist/vocalist/boyfriend Jonathan Rice, and power belting from the little woman who had just finished testing how softly she could sing without disappearing entirely.

After having seen Jenny in the opening show of this tour in Los Angeles, I dragged a friend with me to see her at the final show in San Diego – having prepped her with Rilo Kiley and solo Jenny tracks first. And it was somewhere around half-way through the first song that she tapped my shoulder and said “I’m a total fan now.” Jenny is great on record, there’s no doubt. But she’s even better live. Her innate stage presence draws you in and won’t let go to the point that even after standing up for four hours in line, through opening bands, and her set, you still wish she’d continue singing all night. Let’s hope she continues performing for a long while to come. And if you get the chance to see her, do.

Hear three songs off Acid Tongue at her myspace.