The last time I saw Jenny Owen Youngs was in 2007 opening for Vienna Teng. Then, it was just her and an acoustic guitar as she performed selections from her debut, Batten the Hatches, and amused the audience with her witty banter. Even then, her confident performance, songs and personality seemed far larger than her stripped down performance. Even speaking to her that night, her personality and charisma was immediate and engaging. The Jenny Owen Youngs of 2012, however, is whole different beast. Everything that drew me to her the first time is still intact but, now, it has a thicker, rock edge and presented through a singer that has evolved with an increasing level of musical cool and confidence with each release. At Schubas last night, Youngs performed an energetic set of career highlights for a nearly packed audience that further enforced her emergence as a confident and charismatic singer, songwriter and performer.
From the opening notes of "Your Apartment" to her brilliantly popular take on Nelly's "Hot in Herre," Youngs and her band, drummer Elliot Jacobson and bassist Mike Tuccillo, offered inspired renditions of her songs that far outshine the recorded versions. Newer songs such as the aforementioned opener and the sped-up tribute to emotional baggage, "Pirates," are further accented with a heaviness and immediacy for your attention. "Sleep Machine" is a darker number musically than most of her song especially with the drums and bass pounding out the different parts of the rhythm. It is Youngs' vocals that provided the song with a gentleness as her voice never tried sing over the heavier rhythms. Instead, it felt that the rhythms followed more of her vocal style.
With her older songs, she and her band radically fleshed out the selections. "Clean Break" and "Last Person" from her sophomore release, Transmitter Failure, are more aggressive and offered more definitive versions of the selections. "Fuck Was I" further amped up the waltz-like tempo of the song and there was even a cover of Neil Young's Tell Me Why. It is live and through the combination of her older material woven into her newer selections, that one could easily see Youngs' strength.
As a songwriter, her sense of melody and arrangement runs deep. Even at their most delicate moments, her songs never stray into any kind of repetitive territory with her vocals following suit as her tone, depending on the song, easily shifted from straightfoward, simple approach during the verses into louder chorus that demand for you to sing along with them. The second strength comes from having a solid backing band. Her band never outperformed her and pushed her into being an increasingly skillful performer and leader. In summary, I would liken her to a smaller scale, feminine version of Tom Petty due to her ability to craft a solid hook and being surrounded by musicians that not only help flesh out your songs but also push your abilities and confidence as a live performer.
Australia's New Empire opened the night with a solid 45-minute, acoustic set that featured only half of the band for this tour. Songs like "Summer Sky" and "Ghosts" featured excellent vocal harmonies and even in this form, it was easy to see why the latter made for a great single (for their recent release, Symmetry) with its near-falsetto chorus and delicate melody. In the vocals throughout their performance, there was a bit of a tenderness that could easily be oversung especially over the acoustic guitars. Instead, it was a sweet performance that reigned in any possible over-indulgences (long instrumental passages, long periods of stage banter) which could have been easy to do during their stripped down set. It was just the right amount of everything in their set to convince one to see what they have to offer with the full band performing. In a way, they reminded me of Jenny Owen Youngs' set the first time I saw her at Schubas in the sense that there is something bigger than what is on the surface.
At a low price of $12-14 and on a cold Thursday night, Schubas was a hot place to be. From the enjoyable, acoustic melodies of New Empire to the stomping indie rock of Jenny Owen Youngs, over two hours of enjoyable sounds emanated from the stage. In Jenny Owen Youngs, one also found an artist that is one the cusp of something bigger with every performance. In the near five years since I last saw her perform, she has grown significantly but still remains the artist that I met that same night as in she is still energetic, engaging, humorous and charismatic and more so than she was even then. She continues to be thrilled when performing for her fans and it is best that we do all we can to keep this way. I guess that is my way of saying you should buy a ticket to her show as if you have yet to see her, you are denying yourself of a great performer working toward their prime.
JENNY OWEN YOUNGS