There's only one thing worse than the dreaded singer-to-actor crossover, and that's the actor-to-singer crossover. Lindsay Lohan, anyone? Jared Leto? How about J.Lo? Or the Kevins — Bacon and Costner?
Of course, Zooey Deschanel has already proved herself the exception to the rule, with two well-received albums by She & Him, her collaboration with M. Ward, under her belt. And to be sure, the plainly titled Volume One and Volume Two rest on their own slightly twee merits. Still, there was that lingering question: “If she wasn't Zooey Deschanel, would anyone give a damn?” The Spin was determined to find out, and what better way than to send one of its more clueless correspondents — who was familiar with neither She nor Him — to test the waters.
It should be noted that said Spinster starts to convulse after more than two minutes of Joanna Newsom, and has a good mind to ring Sebastian's Belle. So it was understandable that the 30-or-so seconds of She & Him he listened to, prior to heading out to The Ryman Wednesday night, had him a tad wary of the evening's potential “precious” quotient.
Well, the apprehension was for naught. From the time they took the stage till the ecstatic encore 25 songs later, Deschanel, Ward & Co., seven in all, gave a flawless, compelling and (dare we say) bewitching performance. The early-’60s pop strains of set opener “I Was Made for You,” combined with the vintage finery of the band members, had us thinking we'd been time-warped back to a sock hop in a high school gym. (Actually, the three fedora-donning male band members, excluding Ward, would have looked more at home in Renoir's “Luncheon of the Boating Party” than on the set of Happy Days.)
Much of the evening — “Lingering Still,” “Change Is Hard,” “Don't Look Back,” “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” — teetered in that nostalgic realm that had us half-expecting Deschanel to break into Lesley Gore’s “It's My Party” at any moment. Covers of The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and Joni Mitchell’s “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio” only upped the throwback ante.
The band was superb, with the instrumentalists providing an exceptionally tasteful backdrop yet never drawing attention away from the undeniable star of the show. On the dreamier numbers, Ward’s ambient reverb-laden guitar was the perfect foil for Deschanel’s ethereal singing. And when the band went into five- and six-part vocal harmonies, including occasional a cappella moments, the result was nothing short of spine-tingling.
Deschanel gave the requisite though clearly heartfelt “I’m so excited to play the Ryman” soliloquy, but perhaps an even greater nod to Nashville was the choice of opening act, the ironically named World Famous Headliners, featuring the cream of Nashville’s studio and songwriting crop: “Big Al” Anderson (of NRBQ fame), Shawn Camp, Glenn Worf, Pat McLaughlin and Greg Morrow, who between them have written or played on half the country hits you hear on the radio today. But don’t fault them for that — that’s their day gig. As a band, they had a greasy, rootsy swagger somewhere between Little Feat and The Band, and the Spin was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic audience response they received, particularly from a crowd we can assume is not typically inclined to such music.
Of course, the opening act selection made perfect sense, since She & Him recorded a cover of Anderson’s NRBQ classic “Ridin’ in My Car.” Deschanel invited Anderson out to join her band for the number, even letting Anderson take a verse at the mic to a loud roar of approval from the crowd. But the real showstopper was the final encore, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” a duet with Ward on electric guitar and Deschanel on vocals that clearly put a spell on the audience. Deschanel put her thespian skills to great use, hamming it up in the best possible way. At one point she took the mic away from her mouth, belting out with no amplification — a moment that drove home just what an exceptional singer she is, Hollywood star or not. In fact, as the Spin’s date pointed out, Deschanel is the rare singer whose voice sounds even better live than on record — warmer and more full-bodied, with less of that potentially cloying wispiness.
The crowd was considerably more female than at the typical rock show, and the screams and whistles of admiration had an unusually fanatical pitch and fervor even for a major touring band. As we scratched our heads trying to suss out the extreme adulation, we noticed that the pews were populated by quite a few gaggles of teenage girls, for whom that movie-star mystique clearly added an awesomeness factor that called for a significant decibel surcharge — and understandably so.
But frankly, we were so spellbound by her performance that we’d pretty much forgotten about her Tinseltown cred. In fact, though clearly M. Ward deserves great credit for his songwriting, production and arrangement contributions, the act could be more aptly titled just She. And any fear that the “precious” quotient might be more than we could bear was unfounded. As to our lingering question about whether anyone would give a damn if she wasn't Zooey Deschanel? We had our answer.