Critics have long dismissed “greatest hits” tours as nothing more than convenient cash grabs for artists looking to glide comfortably on their laurels without having to venture into unfamiliar territory. They simply carve out a static setlist that will cater to the fans without alienating those who haven’t been buying the records since day one.
For Alaskan-born songstress Jewel Kilcher, that concept couldn’t be further from reality, because her stop in Niagara Falls on Saturday night featured none of the predictable trappings of such a show.
She arrived on stage surrounded by a feast of Taylor acoustic guitars and played for two hours without the safety net of a backing band. It was just her, the audience, and the spirit of every visionary 1970s singer-songwriter who came before her.
Her material has always been draped in self-reflection and astute poetic nuances, which, in my opinion, helped make the stripped-down format even better than anything she’s recorded in the past. She possesses a vocal ability that seesaws between effervescence and barroom raunch with very little effort, so the listener is left guessing just how far she’s going to take them.
Because she relied on audience requests, the early part of the set featured fan favorites “Near You Always,” “Absence of Fear,” and “Little Sister,” all of which were delivered with the sweetness that originally endeared her to the American public.
“The New Wild West” and “Haunted” brought out the Jewel that I wanted to hear, as her gift for lyrical composition meshed with the edgy side of her voice to create a moment that evoked the great folk singers of the 1960s.
As she transitioned into her mainstream hits, the acoustic vibe once again refreshed the songs in a way that made me wonder why she didn’t just release them that way to begin with.
“Hands” was accompanied by a monologue about how the track became associated with healing in the wake of 9/11, “Standing Still” inspired with its theme of personal yearning, and “Intuition” retained its oomph despite shedding all the fancy pop production.
When it came time to play the classics, Jewel performed them as if they were hot off the press.
“Foolish Games” (my personal favorite) brought the house to its feet as she let her angelic tone run free, while “You Were Meant For Me” and “Who Will Save Your Soul?” still sound as engaging as they did back in 1995.
Of course, no Jewel show would be complete without putting her yodeling skills on display, so the guy who kept insisting that she yodel from the opening note didn’t go home disappointed. Edwin McCain once referred to Jewel as “the Metallica of yodeling,” and, after witnessing her speed in person, I have to agree with McCain’s assessment.
If any band/artist plans on embarking on a “greatest hits” tour in the future, might I suggest listening to Jewel’s set inside the Seneca Niagara Events Center for advice on how to do it the right way.