by The Spin
Photos by Rob Williams.
Not even warm summer rain, coupled with lightning flashes that lit up The Gulch's looming condo skeletons like million-dollar X-rays, could dampen the enthusiasm of the folks lined up last night outside the Mercy Lounge. "I want her to be my wife," mooned the tall, bookish, bespectacled fellow up the line. His companions must've looked puzzled, so he helpfully added, "She plays the ukelele, you know."
"She" would be Zooey Deschanel, the petite, porcelain-skinned goddess-next-door of Elf and Mumford and All the Real Girls, now embarked on a second career as a folk-pop thrush as part of the duo She & Him. While every lovestruck male in the sold-out sweatbox room was mentally casting himself as "him," the role was more than ably filled by indie-folk guitar hero M. Ward, her collaborator on the Volume One CD. Backed by a small, supple band capable of pulling off a Pet Sounds mini-symphonic swell or a gospel rave-up on cue, the two gave off the sweetly awkward charm of officemates afraid of tipping everyone to their mutual crush.
"I dare you to take just one photo," Deschanel told the crowd, meaning fewer flash pops than more—though her sparkly, backless, low-V-necked orchid dress had the iPhones aloft before she'd even launched into the insouciant hip-swinging pop of "Black Hole." At first, tambourine clutched in fist like a life preserver, she seemed as remote a presence onstage as she is immediate on film.
But she loosened up as the show progressed, especially after she and Ward messed up amiably midway through a lovely, well-chosen cover of Joni Mitchell's "You Turn Me on (I'm a Radio)." Her conversational singing, delivered in a smoky-sweet, matter-of-fact voice pitched somewhere between Feist and Billie Holiday, suits not only the postwar-pop reverie of her songs (which evoke everything from The Carter Family to The Lennon Sisters) but also the sympathetic settings Ward cooks up for them.
Never noodly, always surprising, Ward's rhythmic, densely clustered solos staved off the threat of twee, adding a welcome white-light-white-heat flourish to "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?" that only made its sugary bearhug that much harder to resist. (The curly one also strangles a fretboard like nobody's business.) If he and Deschanel interacted surprisingly little for a group called She & Him, her camaraderie with plainly tickled back-up singer Becky Stark from Lavender Diamond was a girl-power delight down to the giggly high-fives they swapped between songs.
After the tent-revival close of "Sweet Darlin'," with Deschanel pogoing in open-mouthed glee, the encores were somehow even better: a gorgeous four-part-harmony version of the mournful "Tennessee Waltz" (joined by Karen Elson, Jack White's wife) followed by a romp with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings through Ward's "Magic Trick" and The Carter Family's "Hello Stranger." Nice to see that Deschanel loves Nashville—and more importantly, that she escaped The Happening's killer tree farts miraculously unscathed. That's more than you can say for M. Night Shyamalan.
The opening act, Charlie Louvin, may have drawn some WTF stares from the crowd at first, but the 81-year-old country legend had the room clapping along to the Louvin Brothers classic "Cash on the Barrelhead" by the end of his 45-minute set. (Yes, for once The Spin arrived for the opening act. We promise not to make a habit of it.) "I'm not in great voice," admitted Louvin, who seemed a bit frail taking the stage, but his good humor, old-pro polish and heavy-duty catalog carried the day. The most punk thing all night was the blood-freezing Louvins standard "Knoxville Girl," a pitiless murder ballad dating back to the 1740s. Chalk one up for old age.