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Natalie Simpson, Beehive Photography
Jenny Lewis at The Commonwealth Room in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 18, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — When Jenny Lewis was making her 2014 album “The Voyager,” producer Ryan Adams told her the album needed another song. As the story goes, Adams told Lewis to go write her “Wonderwall.” It resulted in the album’s title track.

That song never really fit the writing prompt, though. “The Voyager” didn’t have the anthemic kind of gravitas, the defiant hopefulness, of Oasis’ big hit. Since then I’ve wondered, “What exactly is Jenny Lewis’ ‘Wonderwall,’ anyway?”

Midway through her Saturday show at The Commonwealth Room, I think I got my answer. Lewis stood perched on a platform at center stage, draped in a sparkling, form-fitting, body-length gold-sequined dress, singing “Hollywood Lawn.” That song, off her new album “On The Line,” is big. It yearns. It aches. And, through it all, it attempts to muster a little hope in the face of hopelessness. In a live setting, “Hollywood Lawn” felt like Lewis’ “Wonderwall” — albeit from someone a bit older, perhaps wearier and definitely wiser than Oasis was in the mid-1990s.

Lewis and Co. aren’t the same wrecking crew they were five years ago. (I was there for Lewis’ 2014 visit to The Depot, a take-no-prisoners performance that still has me amazed.) She’s got new backing musicians now, and they lack the infectious chemistry of her former players. Lewis herself is a slightly different performer these days, too. The glammed-up gypsy persona she wields onstage — equal parts Stevie Nicks and Dolly Parton — feels more exaggerated this time, I think on purpose. It feels sadder that way, and somehow fits the decidedly un-performative melancholy of Lewis’ new album.

Indeed, “On The Line” is undeniably sad, in a catchy, bittersweet, grandiose kind of way. (Think Harry Nilsson’s 1974 heartbreaker “Many Rivers to Cross.”) It fits the new album’s subject matter: among other topics, the end of a 12-year relationship and the death of Lewis’ mother, from which she'd long been estranged. Lewis played six of the album’s 11 songs on Saturday. Strictly as arrangements, the new material feels less dynamic, less malleable, than the rest of Lewis’ set, which incorporated her three other solo albums, a few Rilo Kiley songs and a Traveling Wilburys cover. The new songs are still really good, though, and their percussive weightiness gave a baseline oomph to the whole show.

Lewis began hitting her stride five songs in, on the hazy, languid country-western ballad “Happy.” The song is so effectively cinematic — it felt like being in a dusty old saloon — and showcased Lewis at her most theatrical. (Which is Lewis at her best.) It kicked off an incredible five-song run — the evening’s most thrilling — that had Lewis saunter through a more seductive version of “The Voyager,” into “Do Si Do,” “She’s Not Me” and the aforementioned “Hollywood Lawn.”

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Her pre-encore set ended, appropriately, with Rilo Kiley’s “With Arms Outstretched.” Lewis had the venue drop all the house lights, and asked the crowd to light her with our phones. And, with arms outstretched, we did just that. In that glamorous gold gown of hers, basked in the decidedly less glamorous light of our cell phones, Lewis sang, “It’s 16 miles to the promised land / And I promise you, I’m doing the best I can.” She seemed to really mean it, too.

Set list

  • “The Big Guns”
  • “Head Underwater”
  • “Rise Up With Fists!!”
  • “Silver Lining” (Rilo Kiley)
  • “Happy”
  • “The Voyager”
  • “Do Si Do”
  • “She’s Not Me”
  • “Hollywood Lawn”
  • “Red Bull & Hennessy”
  • “Just One of the Guys”
  • “On The Line”
  • “Little White Dove”
  • “Born Secular”
  • “With Arms Outstretched” (Rilo Kiley)

Encore

  • “Party Clown”
  • “See Fernando”
  • “Handle with Care” (Traveling Wilburys)
  • “Acid Tongue”