December 23, 2018, New York City.
The Sidewalk Cafe, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is right across from where Jeffrey Lewis grew up. He tells this to the crowd watching him in the small back room of the bar, the majority of that crowd being made up of his own family — his parents, brother, uncle, cousins and many more Lewises — and they know this.
I did not know this. Perhaps the 10 or 15 other non-family members in the audience didn’t either.
I will learn a lot about Jeffrey across this holiday show, which begins with two songs from him and continues through various permutations of ‘Lewis’, including his brother (and often band mate) Jack, their father, their uncle — aka Professor Louie — and various cousins by blood and by marriage.
By any measure, the concert is eclectic: the Professor raps, without music, on the class struggle and white privilege; Jeffrey’s cousin Shana, who runs an organic farm with her husband in Upstate New York (we are told), plays instrumental electric guitar along with said husband; Jack Lewis plays his bass with a drum machine in accompaniment , singing rock-ish songs about his life in Portland, and complains that he is rarely able to be in town fo the annual reunion. Jeff and Jack’s father covers famous blues standards.
Familial connections aside, the set becomes more bizarre as it continues, from a half-spoken, half-sung song and dance for children performed by a school teacher, to a stand up set from Colbert collaborator Jordan Carlos.
At one time, the main performers take to the stage together for a rendition of ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill’, a song in tribute to the protest singer. Before the ensemble begins, Professor Louie gives a brief rundown of Hill’s life and work, including Hill’s importance to the American labor movement. And in the run up to the number, he does the same for Perry Robinson, a relative of the family and a world-renowned avant-garde clarinetist who had died a few weeks earlier and whose compositions Jeffrey Lewis has been using as the ‘hold’ music between performances.
It’s a strange window into the artistic world, this show, and one that suits the most famous Lewis’ music perfectly. His songs, I suspect through both natural expression and design, are highly self-referential and often biographical. The presence of his family members, the stories they tell and the ones he tells about them, augment and enhance his already colorful musical stories.
In ‘What I Love Most About England is the Food’, his opening song of the night, for example, Jeff explains that it was written in response to his own father’s worry that it must have been horrible to tour there because the food is so bad. Later, he plays ‘Sad Screaming Old Man’, a song about his next door neighbor. When he introduces it as such, many of his family members knowingly laugh.
I am less in the know, of course, but this sense of just-in-reach authenticity lends the night a sort of hyperreality that brings the evening to life. Because for me, for many years, the New York of Lewis’ songs existed as a New York of the mind. As I sat in the Sidewalk Cafe in a casual room, on a casual Sunday, amidst casual musical brilliance, I was put in mind of the the almost haphazard quality that I associate with the city, from Duke Ellington, to the Velvet Underground, to Kool Herc, to Bob Dylan.
This is the sentiment Lewis, and the free peep show that is the Lewis Family Concert, conjures in me: a window is opened into the city in which I live, and the window — because there is still glass, after all — looks on a romantic view of New York’s do-it-yourselfness that has become both more real and more imagined now that the concert is finished.
Jeff Lewis, for his own part, summarized that fact-fiction balance succinctly back in 2001. “Life is a story,” he sang. “Don’t you doubt.”