Unpolished gem: Jewel concert loses its luster

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
August 15, 1999

“Turn to me with frozen lips; Your hands are icy cold.”

No, Jewel wasn’t describing the chilly conditions Friday night at the New World Music Theatre. Rather, she was singing a verse from “What’s Simple is True.”

What’s true is simply this: With two hit albums (“Pieces of You” and “Spirit”), a best-selling poetry book (A Night Without Armor) and a leading role in Ang Lee’s coming film “Ride with the Devil,” Jewel’s ingenue days are over. Talented and lovely, she oozes telegenic charm in her music videos.

She just isn’t particularly interesting in a live setting. At least she wasn’t Friday night.

In smaller clubs, Jewel is able to weave a spell with her homespun stories and wink-and-smile style. Some of this came across Friday night, as when she explained the songwriting process of her best-known hit, “You Were Meant for Me.”

Or when she sang a polka-influenced ditty about how deliriously perfect it would be to make out with her cold-infested beau.

But overall, her act tends to get dwarfed in an enormodome.

Dressed in a black top and tight slacks – with a bright pink kerchief wrapped around her head – Jewel appeared uncomfortably cold, curling her fingers into her jacket sleeves trying to stay warm.

Her wispy, girlish voice contrasts sharply with her lush, womanly figure, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the young men in the audience who nearly fell out of their chairs when she announced, “I feel a little frisky tonight.”

Her fans – who ranged from look-alike young girls who stubbornly refused to cover their halters and tank tops with windbreakers, to hormonally charged frat boys screaming out lusty comments throughout the show, to parents with their young children in tow – fared better, huddling for warmth.

It has been years since Jewel – now 25 – was “discovered” living in her van and singing in San Diego coffeehouses. And she reached back to her folk roots as she started the show solo, accompanying herself with an acoustic guitar.

While her five-man band had a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility that added dimension to her live renditions, it was the sparse arrangements of the ballads that gave Jewel the chance to really shine.

During “Foolish Games,” she walked onto a stage addition that protruded partially into the audience. Accompanied only by her keyboardist, Jewel quietly worked her way through the first verse, baring her soul with the song’s honest lyrics and the crescendoing chorus.

That song rang so much more true than, say, “Hands,” which conveyed the message that “In the end; only kindness matters.”

Perhaps in a Utopian world. But repeated over and over in a pop song, it just sounded naive.

At her best, Jewel is a pop goddess – all golden and nonthreatening. At worst, she is a young artist who has a few more years to go before she taps into a songwriting style that doesn’t betray her roots.

The Pittsburgh-based band Rusted Root opened the show with a loud, fast-paced set that’s frequent jams were as eloquent as they were sloppy. But this band was better suited for an arena like the New World Music Theatre than the evening’s headliner.

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