Eilen Jewell is a singing gem from Boise, Idaho, and around 2005 she struck gold by combining her talents with guitarist Jerry G. Miller, bassist Johnny Sciascia and drummer Jason Beek in Massachusetts, and they’ve since been supplying the world with a well-poised balance of country and swing music with jazzy-torchy stylings, and a little bit of whatever else feels right mixed in. With Jewell writing the songs and providing the onstage patter in a trademark little black dress, they make for a sure-footed combo (one which has been around the world at this point) and they played to a sold-out crowd at the City Winery in New York City last night.
The set ranged from the title track of their first album, “Boundary County,” to new and as yet unreleased songs like “Rio Grande.” Eilen Jewell had the crowd fairly transfixed and charmed, and guitarist Jerry G. Miller had a sizeable fan section of his own in the house. Indeed, seeing the group live made it clear to what degree Eilen the singer and Jerry, her guitarist, are a symbiotic double-act: Jewell’s singing voice evokes words like smoky, languid, even laconic, and benefits greatly from the counterpoint of Miller’s rockabilly-esque colorings on the guitar, keeping the music chugging down the track and occasionally spitting fire. None of the tunes are overly-long, and knowing the value of brevity is just one of the many elements of good taste that Jewell and her band bring to their work.
There were plenty of songs from the most recent Eilen Jewell album, Queen of the Minor Key, that title being a tag someone put on her which she chose to embrace, although she mixes melancholy tunes with impish numbers like “Bang Bang Bang” and “High Shelf Booze” and her chat between songs is nothing if not humorous and unpretentious. She also sang Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” from an album of all-Lynn numbers she’s recorded titled Butcher Holler. Jewell herself is a very fine songwriter who clearly reaches back and draws on worthy influences. Indeed, one of her big ballads, “Only One,” evokes “Love For Sale” in its haunting melody, and her song “Reckless” is similarly not a trillion miles from the old classic “Busted” (which one may know from Ray Charles and/or Johnny Cash). But the good stuff always comes back again, right?
She deftly blends American geography into her songs, and there is much of the wistfulness that attaches to times and places and people loved or lost along the way. It all works, and the band works, and there would be little question that any Eilen Jewell neophyte brought along by a friend last night would have left an enthusiastic fan. The one thing Eilen Jewell has to beware of, I think (along with the challenges of raising the child with whom she is 5 1/2 months pregnant—the father being her husband the drummer) is the danger of being too comfortable within the admittedly very impressive musical box she’s constructed. Perfect stylings are delightful and enjoyable, but you have to show or shed some blood now and then to keep it all from sounding too safe, too surface-based.
Eilen Jewell and her band continue their current tour across the U.S. into May. Catch her if you can.
And enjoy a live “Bang Bang Bang” via YouTube: