Last Night: Jakob Dylan at the Wiltern
[See Timothy Norris' slideshow of Jakob Dylan's show at the Wiltern here]
We were so blown away a couple of months ago when Jakob Dylan's Women and Country came out that we even wrote a column about it for the print edition and spoke with the singer himself about the subtle album.
The only frustrating thing about Women and Country was that the gentle, organic music was packaged and promoted as a major label release when (we thought) it would have been better served as an indie effort. The album is a small gem and we thought its natural venue in LA would be somewhere intimate like Largo, the Bootleg or the Mint.
Well, last night Jakob and his band came to the Wiltern. It was a sit-down show (ushers busied themselves preventing anyone from standing near the bar or otherwise loitering). The crowd skewed older and "young-professional" (many couples on married dates). Much of the possible energy the music could have produced was dissipated by the setup.
True, the Wiltern was full, so organizers and Jakob's managers will probably count this as a success and offer more of the same next time around. But we think it was another missed opportunity for this strange artist, who has constantly, adamantly rebelled against the creative silver spoon he was born with, to find a more appropriate audience.
The bill kicked off with local folk darlings HoneyHoney, who did their usual tasteful set, and continued with New York's The Felice Brothers, who vainly attempted to inject some hoedown energy into the button-down, Starbucks crowd.
The juvenile Felice Bros. have a very distinctive, if slightly melodramatic, vocalist in Ian Felice, a relaxed keys man in his brother James, and a manic fiddler who acts as a kind of jocky hype-man ("How about that Jakob Dylan??? Uhhhh???"). Their act is somewhere in the ramshackle intersection of Tom Waits, The Pogues and somebody's dad's vinyl collection of the works of Dylan the Elder from 1963 to 1980.
They couldn't pull it off at the sit-down Wiltern, though one can imagine they would be a fantastic bar band. The Felices work best when kicking up a beat and singing their age ("Run Chicken Run": "She's the fairest of them all/ She loves her Adderall"), than when trying to get all Biblical and deep.
And then Jakob and his band took the stage, the instrumentalists attired in suits and '30s style hats. The moment everyone was in place, a complication became evident. Look:
See the "backup singer" closest to Jakob? The stunning redhead in the sleeveless number? The one with the charisma and the posture and the presence?
That's Neko Case, who clearly wasn't born for backup singer. We're calling this "a complication" because it highlighted the elephant in the large Wiltern room, one of the elephants in Jakob Dylan's life, if you will.
Charisma is not hereditary.
Jakob's natural generational cohort in art includes inventive, dynamic men like Beck or Jack White, or darkly pastoral performers like Bonnie Prince Billy or Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum. Sure, The Wallflowers scored the one big hit way back in 1996 with "One Headlight" (and that was the only song that actually revved up the Wiltern audience, though the hooting and hollering mostly came from
aging Sex and the City-gals-on-the-town types). But Jakob proved with the latest record he can do more than that.
Live, it's another matter. The songs are there, but the show felt long and plodding in the middle, with Jakob's fatal failure to connect with the crowd at a visceral level being highlighted by the ridiculously charismatic Neko Case being reduced to little harmonies to the side. Even the other, much less famous backup singer, Kelly Hogan, took a solo section during the Wallflowers' "Three Marlenas" and got a bigger ovation than the headliner.
Bringing guitarist and producer T-Bone Burnett near the end of the set was a nice LA touch (Jakob to the audience: "I used to come here a lot as a teenager, though they didn't have 3-part-harmonies like this back then"), but it's hard not to think of him as his dad's old sideman from the Rolling Thunder days.
Jakob's live sound is stuck in a kind of late '80s-to-mid '90s groove, somewhere between his father's Oh Mercy, Springsteen Tunnel of Love, or Clapton's Rush soundtrack. It's no surprise then that the Starbucks crowd left the Wiltern gently smiling and holding hands, nothing too exciting.
One day, maybe, Jakob will step out of this box of his own making. We suggest a year-long stint being Neko Case's backup vocalist and more organic venues. It won't happen, but maybe it should.