It might seem strange that after almost 20 years of critical fanfare, Jeffrey Lewis is still something of a secret; a cult concern at best. Stranger still, then, that this afternoon’s matinee show should be completely sold out – and has been for some time.
But here’s the thing: now 40-years-old, New York anti-folk icon, Jeffrey Lewis, doesn’t have casual listeners so much as dedicated fans: bookish, charming individuals of all ages who know all the words yet still laugh at each droll lyrical flourish as though hearing it for the first time. It’s a comparison that’s well worn, but it’s hard to think of anyone who’s commanded this kind of underground following whilst still remaining commercially invisible since Daniel Johnson.
Today, like any other, he takes time to man his own merchandise stand, making small-talk with people who know more about his back-catalogue than he does. Fiercely DIY, it’s an ethos that’s so inextricably tied up with his artistic identity it’s impossible to imagine him enjoying anything more than this current level of recognition. It’s a curious limbo and it’s one that’s explored in ‘Cult Boyfriend’, a song penned a few years back and brought out this afternoon to make up, for want of a better expression, a greatest hits set. “When you’re a cult boyfriend life’s always intense, they’re in love or they’re indifferent, no one’s on the fence.”
This afternoon, though, they’re in love and some of the biggest cheers of the day are reserved for new material. Set in his home borough and released this year, ‘Manhattan’ is a collection of self-contained stories and ruminations covering familiar territory: the terrors of loneliness, artistic integrity, compromise and growing old. Not to mention near-constant self-doubt and anxiety. Drawn with characteristic humour and tenderness, a couple of characters from the new album make appearances this afternoon in the shape of ‘Scowling Crackhead Ian’ and ‘Sad Screaming Old Man’.
Despite having a show in Bournemouth to get to in just a few hours time, he gamely performs two encores, after which, there will be no lavish tour bus taking him and his band to the next venue; and when he arrives, as always, he’ll be setting up his own equipment, staffing his own merchandise stand and then packing it away himself at the end of the evening.
For a career defined as much by his unwavering commitment to creating and sharing art as it is for his singularly unflinching candour as a songwriter, there will always be an audience, however small, that’s immeasurably thankful for the existence of Jeffrey Lewis.
The Hope & Ruin, Saturday 5th December 2015
Words by Liam McCreesh
Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff