Juliette Lewis | Photo by Wendy McCardle for WXPN | wendymccardle.com
A punk rocker with a blueswoman’s soul, Juliette Lewis rages at Union Transfer
The transition from actor to musician is a precarious one. Anyone who remembers Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time” or more recently, Scarlett Johannson’s Anywhere I Lay My Head, accepts this as fact. While there are plenty of arguable exceptions to the rule, in a culture where celebrity equals royalty, music remains the one sacred territory in which a Hollywood connection doesn’t automatically earn credibility.
So skeptical but curious was the mood as a modest crowd peppered the floor of Union Transfer on Monday night in anticipation of Juliette Lewis’ appearance. The actress, best known for her roles in Natural Born Killers, Cape Fear and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, is back in town for her first U.S. tour since the 2009 dissolution of her band, The Licks. The Licks reunited in 2015 and interest in Lewis as a musician renewed this year with the release of the Michael Rapaport-directed short form documentary Hard Lovin’ Woman.
The film, which takes its name from a track off Lewis’ 2009 Omar Rodriguez-Lopez-produced full-length solo debut Terra Incognita, allows a glimpse into Lewis’ life as she all but abandons a 20 year-long career in acting to pursue a raw passion for rock & roll and independently release her own music. It presents a compelling case for why you should make it a point to see a Juliette Lewis show at least once in your life. Still, in the moments leading up to Lewis’ call time upon Union Transfer’s stage, a small handful of hardcore fans patiently hugged the edge of the stage while the loudest voices in the room preoccupied themselves with discussing the specifics of her curriculum vitae.
Documentaries and IMDB details aside, I don’t think any of us had an idea of what we were in for. The house lights were cut and the first ten seconds of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” looped as the band filed in. Those samba rhythms and primal howls grew trance-like in the darkness until Lewis appeared before us in a star-spangled unitard, looking like the love child of David Lee Roth and Evel Knievel. The music visibly coursed through her every cell like electroshock therapy. As the small crowd swelled under her energy, I wondered if R5 Productions should have looked into padding the room, because it felt like Lewis was about to turn the place into a wrestling ring.
To the naked eye, Lewis’ stage presence has all the bells and whistles that make a great rock show. Wild hair flips and serpentine snaps of the microphone cord keep the heart racing, but a closer look reveals a more subtle, nuanced performer. Quick to connect with her audience, Lewis is as unabashedly vulnerable as she is wild. She’s a punk rocker with a blueswoman’s soul. A deep look into her eyes reveals a pure heart full of joy replete with flickers of pure crazy.
Her four-piece band wove their way through the older, classic rock-tinged Licks tracks, mixing in the alt-rock sounds of Terra Incognita as well as the bright and bouncy funk of Lewis’ brand new single “Hello Hero”. Lewis’ voice slid in and out of smooth, soulful valleys, hitting the rough spots in all the right places. She effortlessly traversed over peaks that conjured Janis Joplin’s psych-blues just as well as Karen O’s modern sensibility. There was not one dull moment in her roughly 90 minute-long set.
Of course when an Oscar-nominated actor can pull off a performance this believable, suspicions rise that it’s just another role. But there’s nothing disingenuous about what Juliette Lewis brings to the stage. In the live setting, she reveals her true self – a beast that was caged for two decades while she made a living by pretending to be someone else. As she explains in Hard Lovin’ Woman, “When all thought disappears and it’s all feeling and it’s all expression, then you’ve arrived. And for me, that only happens at shows.” The rest of us should only hold on for dear life.