NIAGARA FALLS – “So, what do you guys feel like hearing tonight?”
That was Jewel, two songs into her sold-out performance Saturday in the Events Center of the Seneca Niagara Casino, making it clear that her performance would be much more of a folksy, intimate, “VH1 Storytellers” type of gig than a ritzy run-through of the hits in a casino ballroom. Which was interesting, because Saturday’s show was a stop on the folk singer’s “Greatest Hits” tour, which was meant to provide a career-overview for Jewel fans.
What those fans got, however, turned out to be much more.
Though Jewel doesn’t sell as many records as she did during her ’90s heyday, the Alaskan-born singer-songwriter still commands a large and decidedly loyal fan base, made up of folks who enjoy her overtly honest ruminations on life and love. The Events Center crowd knew the lyrics and sang along, was far from bashful when the subject of their love asked for requests, and peppered the show with spontaneous calls of “We love you, Jewel!” All were handled with self-deprecating grace by the singer.
She emerged from the wings as if doing so was no big deal, grabbed one of several gorgeous Taylor acoustic guitars awaiting her attention, and dove straight into “Near You Always.” With her long hair tied back in a tight ponytail, and dressed in a sun dress adorned with stars, Jewel appeared radiant, mellow and lovely. Her music, though, was certainly not overtly cutesy, at least at first.
“Near You Always” was a searing piece, based around an open tuning and a melody that was infused with yearning – its circular pattern perfectly matched to the poetic, romantic imagery of the lyric. Opening with this tune was a brave move, because it is indeed one of Jewel’s most sophisticated. But the rest of the show – though it occasionally came close to being a bit too mellow for its own good – on balance offered nothing resembling a letdown.
Commanding a large crowd’s attention with nothing but an acoustic guitar, a voice and some between-song banter is an incredibly tough gig. Folk-based songs, particularly when they rely on pop-based tropes, as Jewel’s songs do, are often better suited to a coffeehouse or church basement than to a large concert space. Pop requires at least some rhythm, and rhythm is best provided by bass and drums. But for the most part, Jewel kept things moving at an exciting pace, making sure to avoid placing tunes in similar – or the same – keys and tempos adjacent to each other.
Jewel does indeed come from the folk tradition. As was revealed during her between-song chats, she first started playing gigs as an 8-year-old, in a duo with her songwriting father. She left home at 15, eventually becoming a homeless songwriter attempting to scrape by on money earned from busking. She told one story of attempting to hop trains when she couldn’t afford legitimate transportation, an image which – perhaps self-consciously – ties her to the folk troubadour tradition established by the itinerant Woody Guthrie. Jewel is no Guthrie, nor is she a Bob Dylan, but she does know her way around a topical folk tune. “New Wild West” was one of these, a modal romp with many verses in the model of pre-electric Dylan, with lyrics that adopt a reporter’s eye on society and culture. This tune worked, its image-heavy observations cutting deep.
Some of the love songs – encore “You Were Meant For Me” offering a prime example – were a bit on the twee, melodramatic side. (Imagine Taylor Swift with much more of a sense of the literary tradition and the poetic image to draw upon.) But in fairness, this was the first song Jewel ever wrote, and the fact that it became her first hit in the midst of the male-dominated grunge era suggests that she was tapping into something significant.
Pacing in one-woman shows is everything, and happily, Jewel had it down. She grabbed an electric guitar for a torrid take on “Haunted,” which she described as “a song about a break-up” that boasted a narrator whose behavior “would probably be considered stalking in several states.” “Perfectly Clear” offered up her forays into country music in a succinct manner, and it was prefaced with some of the evening’s most poetic imagery. The singer told a story about observing patrons at a bar where she performed with her father as a young girl, noting “the great lengths women will go to get a compliment (and) what men will do to outrun their sorrow.” This set the song up wonderfully, and its chilling harmony and virtuosic singing were deeply affecting.
Throughout the evening, Jewel sang beautifully, easing from her comfort zone into a lilting falsetto, a near-yodel or a full-voiced top-of-range peak with seeming effortlessness. She is indeed a class act, and Saturday’s show offered her fans an intimate glimpse into her songwriter’s psyche.