Live: Christopher Owens at Le Poisson Rouge

Photographer Nick Ray McCann
November 15, 2012

It seemed just yesterday all anybody could think about was Rihanna’s much hullabalooed appropriation of an open-sourced internet aesthetic for her recent SNL performance, which brought up so many issues of ownership and authenticity. How strange it is to then find oneself IRL at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, listening to genuine whoops from the crowd when an older, goateed flautist—who, for the past 30 minutes has carried the lilting “Lysandre” theme across Christopher Owens’ debut suite of solo material—traded his flute for a harmonica and promptly began to wail the wind flourish in Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”? Rihanna can float weightlessly along a row of CGI’d ionic columns and Azealia Banks can spurt out of a shark's mouth, but maybe the most punk thing in the world you can do right now is have an encore set that is about half as long as your set of original material, and fill it with classic folk/rock hits from Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkle, Donovan, The Everly Brothers and even Dylan. Ooh baby, it's a wild world, indeed. It was the most earnest un-fuck the world moment I could imagine (or fuck you moment, depending on how you look at it), and I couldn’t help but hum the harmony lines for almost the entire encore (because I had learned them in my high school chorus). A quick pan of the audience also confirmed by way of reverential lip synch, that even the most self-serious music appreciators in the crowd could not resist being stirred when Owens worked up to the passionate denouement in “The Boxer.” Every one of us has heard that song for the first time once in our lives, so everyone understands. I am leaving, I am leaving... But the fighter still remains.

After nearly four years as front man of the beloved rock group Girls, Owens could be the protagonist of that song (though he’s always struck me as more of a lover), and he remains, for better or worse, the lone torchbearer for what Girls has meant to so many people. People were shocked when he announced his departure from the band this past summer via Twitter. Surely, that’s a burden to carry, and I will not be surprised if some superfans knock him and his solo debut, Lysandre, for wearing its heart a little too plainly on its sleeve. And yet, at the same time, isn’t the plain-old purity of a faithful cover really a complex idea in the current musical landscape? Here’s a guy with a guitar and a story to tell. Can you believe it? Here’s a guy who is not altering the rock lexicography with neologistic genre tags or outrageous claims. Lysandre is a slip of a rock album, that dips its toe demurely in pools of influence from prog to folk to, quite literally, “Riviera Rock.” And Owens faithfully followed Lysandre’s tracklisting, as though it were a song cycle that could and should not be broken.

This was Owens’ second-only live performance of his solo material, and when he came back out onto the stage for his encore, he admitted to being a little nervous and that the band was “still getting to know each other.” His first was in San Francisco at the intimate, red fabric-swathed venue within a venue, The Lodge. There, Owens played his new material to the city that birthed him as an artist. Le Poisson Rogue kept with the carnal hue, but when I slipped into the venue (admittedly a little late) and had yet to take the temperature of the audience, it was unclear if it was going to be a miracle-of-life affair or simply a blood bath. It turned out to be the former, and people seemed pleased to go along for the melodically driven ride and even to see Owens through the rough patches, like the wince-inducing “Love is in the Ear of the Listener,” in which Owens confronts the polemic head on and takes to the couch singing: What if I’m just a bad songwriter, and everything I say has been said before/ Well everything to say has been said before, and that's not what makes or breaks a song. People were laughing along with each punch/line, as if we were listening to a live rendition of “Alice’s Restaurant” a week shy of Thanksgiving. And, despite the newness of the project, many of the bandmates that flanked Owens on either side have been backing characters in the larger Girls narrative for some time. In total, Owens was backed by a guitarist, a keyboardist, drummer, flautist and two backup singers in high-waisted bottoms and scanty tops who otherwise would’ve been completely indistinguishable if it weren’t for one of them being Owens’ fairly public girlfriend, the former singer of the band Dominant Legs, Hannah Hunt. She diverted from her mimetic duet to play errant percussion or gesture proprietarily at the end of the song, closing it out with a maestro-like flick of the wrist that said: I've played this tune a thousand times, and I'll see it through till the end.

But really, what I found most heartbreaking—almost elegiac—about the live show, was the lone vase of flowers set in the middle of the stage. For anyone who’s been to a Girls show in the past, you know that it was customary for the band to festoon the stage with flowers—flowers tied to the mics, flowers in vases, flowers scattered around the stage. But what once struck me as a sort of beautiful, embarrassment of blossoms, now seemed slightly funereal, like an offering to the one we’ve lost along the way. And a laurel for the one that still remains.

Live: Christopher Owens at Le Poisson Rouge