Eilen Jewell juggles a lot these days. She’s been prepping for a new album due out in May, and her stop in Raleigh’s Southland Ballroom Feb. 11 kicked off a steady stream of shows that will take her through springtime. Oh, and she’s mom to Mavis, who was born last summer and now is on tour with mama Eilen (rhymes with “feelin'”) and daddy Jason Beek, the band’s drummer and harmony vocalist.
At the Raleigh show, she joked about “baby brain” as she nearly forgot to pick up her guitar to start a song. “It’s real,” someone in the audience shouted. OK, fine. It was me.
Because baby brain IS real, and that first year of parenting is hard. It’s challenging to find time to feed and dress yourself, let alone be thoughtful and creative. But Jewell has found the time, energy and inspiration to pen new songs that shine — several of which she played at Southland Ballroom. One, “Songbird,” was inspired by Mavis (named for Mavis Staples: “She was born on a Sunday,” Jewell remarked, “so she had to have a gospel singer name.”), whom Jewell calls her “true North” in the lyrics. Things got dusty in that ballroom for a lot of folks during that song, judging from all the wiping of eyes I saw. Through my own wiping of eyes. Ahem.
The 20-song set showed Jewell’s incredible stylistic range. She can handle jazz, blues, and classic country — and she can rock. All of this supported by a tight band that didn’t blink an eye when Jewell decided to ditch her set list and take requests. Drummer/singer/husband Beek’s voice blended just right with Jewell’s, and upright bass player Johnny Sciascia provided the foundation with finesse — but just the right amount of that. But what really gives Jewell’s band its signature sound, every bit as much as Jewell herself, is the man on the red-orange Gretsch, Jerry Miller. It’s hard to imagine Jewell without him, and I hope we never have to.
Listening to Jewell is a treat, but watching her is its own kind of joy. She used finger guns to great effect during “Bang Bang Bang” (a song about Cupid’s vagaries she framed as a cautionary tale just before Valentine’s Day) and joked, when a page of lyrics (which she only seemed to glance at for new songs) blew off her stand, that the breeze was created by “all my hot dance moves.” (That’s her moving to a cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” in the top photo.) She even made the maracas look cool.
On the way out, I picked up a copy of Jewell’s two-disc live CD, recorded last year at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Massachusetts and long-awaited by fans. It has many of the same songs as she played in Raleigh, and then some. That ought to tide me over until the new album in May (on Signature Sounds). Judging from the songs she played from it at this show, it’ll be well worth the wait.
Worried Mind (new)
Rain Roll In
Where They Never Say Your Name
Sea of Tears
My Hometown (new)
Bang Bang Bang
High Shelf Booze
Why I’m Walkin’ (Stonewall Jackson)
Drop Down Daddy (Sleepy John Estes)
Dusty Boxcar Wall (Eric Anderseon)
Too Hot to Sleep
Back to Dallas
Fist City (Loretta Lynn)
I Remember You
Thanks a Lot (Charlie Rich)
If You Catch Me Stealing
Songbird (debut performance)
Shakin’ All Over (Johnny Kidd and the Pirates)