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Review and photos: Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins open their tour with a bang

Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins. All photos by Jay Gabler/MPR.

We may, one day, look back on these as halcyon days in Minneapolis music: days when, for the price of a Jenny Lewis ticket, you could get a complete album performance, a Staves guest appearance, the Cactus Blossoms doing Ben Gibbard doing Roy Orbison, and a Conor Oberst/Har Mar Superstar soul kiss.

A day after Frankie Lee convened a star-studded hootenanny at the Clown Lounge, most of his guests reconvened onstage Tuesday at the State Theatre to inaugurate Jenny Lewis’s Rabbit Fur Coat tenth-anniversary fall tour with the Watson Twins, her collaborators on that first LP released outside of Rilo Kiley.

The mood was…giddy, to say the least. It didn’t start out that way, though: as an unbilled opener (albeit one whose presence had been heavily teased), Conor Oberst mixed classics like Bright Eyes’ “At the Bottom of Everything” with new songs like “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out,” a song from his forthcoming solo album.

Alternating between piano and guitar with members of Lewis’s backing band providing subtle, sympathetic support, Oberst demonstrated once again his singular ability to rivet an audience with a wordy, emotive indie-folk style that so many have tried and failed to master. He concluded his eight-song set with a heart-stopping “Milk Thistle,” thanking a surprised but gratified crowd.

Conor Oberst

After the first of two brief intermissions, Lewis appeared, leading the Watson Twins onstage as the three sang Rabbit Fur Coat opener “Run Devil Run” while carrying candles and wearing outfits that echoed the red (Watson) and blue-grey (Twins) dresses they sport on the cover of that 2006 album. Behind them was a towering image of a hotel hallway that evoked the backdrop of that cover shot.

The Watson Twins, a Southern California duo (yes, they’re actually twins), haven’t made much of a national splash outside of their album with Lewis, but they’ve put out several well-respected releases, including two on seminal folk label Vanguard Records. With ethereal backing vocals and stylish but restrained dance moves, they made for perfect counterweight to Lewis’s wry delivery throughout Rabbit Fur Coat and beyond.

The trio, backed by a tight four-piece band, played Rabbit Fur Coat from beginning to end — serving as a reminder of just how weird and wonderful a release that is. The rockers are weighed down by sorrow, and the mournful acoustic numbers are buoyed by hope and Lewis’s sharp wit. Maybe the biggest revelation was the album’s title track; a solo number that plays as a breezy sing-song for Lewis on the album took on new gravity in Lewis’s measured live performance, with themes of class and gender sharply accentuated.

The album’s “hit,” of course, was Lewis’s cover of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” — recorded with guest vocals from Oberst, Ben Gibbard, and M. Ward. Oberst took the stage to reprise his part on Tuesday, with Lewis inviting the Cactus Blossoms onstage to fill in the remaining lines that weren’t her own. The classic-country duo served as a reminder of the line connecting today’s indie-rock stars to yesterday’s classic-rock stars and back further to those icons’ own idols from Nashville. (The fact that the Cactus Blossoms are slated to appear on the new season of Twin Peaks also seemed appropriate, given the slightly surreal feeling of the whole evening.)

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After closing the Rabbit Fur Coat performance with a quiet reprise of “Happy,” the musicians left the stage for a set change: the psychedelic backdrop used by Lewis when touring behind her latest solo album The Voyager rose, and Lewis closed the night with a nine-song set that imagined how the last decade of her output might have sounded if she’d continued working with the Watsons.

The Voyager tracks — notably lead single “Just One of the Guys” — were enthusiastically received, and the set’s energy peaked with a rousing “See Fernando” (from 2008’s Acid Tongue) that had Lewis the Watsons bopping in unison like alt-country Supremes.

The Staves joined forces with the Watsons (as they’d done with Lucius at Eaux Claires) to create an overtone-laden chorus for “The Voyager,” and Lewis dedicated the following “I Never” (the only Rilo Kiley song she sang all night) to Oberst — who, Lewis reminded the crowd, brought Rabbit Fur Coat about by inviting Lewis to make a solo record for his then-new imprint Team Love.

Oberst reappeared during the next song, a rollicking take on “Door” by Lewis’s new band NAF (one of the things Lewis said the acronym could stand for was “Nice and Friendly”). In high spirits, Oberst merrily played a shaker and wandered about the stage.

Finishing “Door,” Lewis pointed out that the band knew yet another version of the song featuring Har Mar Superstar — and when Har Mar’s hometown crowd cheered, she called him out to sing a single rousing chorus of it. Oberst seemed chagrined there wasn’t going to be more, so Har Mar soothed him with a couple of passionate smooches — meaning, for those of you who are keeping score, that Conor Oberst is now just one degree of liplock away from Macaulay Culkin.

A loud and proud “She’s Not Me” closed out the night, with Lewis waving merrily and taking her bows arm-in-arm with the Watsons. It was, to say the least, a night to remember.

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