Singer-songwriter Jewel launched her “Greatest Hits” tour just a few days ago and performed in Portland Sunday night at Merrill Auditorium. It was her first visit here since 2006; the upper balcony wasn’t sold for this show, but otherwise it pretty much looked like a full house.
Jewel first gained the ear of the masses with her debut album, 1995’s “Pieces of You,” released when she was 21. It went on to sell more than 12 million copies and includes the hits “Who Will Save Your Soul,” “Foolish Games” and “You Were Meant For Me.”
Since then Jewel, whose full name is Jewel Kilcher, has released a steady stream of albums that have crossed over into pop, dance, country and even children’s music. Last month her “Greatest Hits” collection came out with selections from her catalog as well as the new song “Two Hearts Breaking.”
Opening the show was singer-songwriter Holly Williams, granddaughter of country legend Hank Williams Sr. and daughter of Hank Williams Jr. She turned in a terrific six-song set, including tunes from her album “The Highway,” released earlier this year.
At the stroke of half past eight, all eyes were on center stage when Jewel appeared in black cowboy boots and a funky mini-dress. The show was a solo one and Jewel was flanked by an array of three acoustic guitars and an electric guitar.
She opened with “Near You Always” from “Pieces of You,” and from there dived into a 16-song set that ranged through much of her catalog and also contained a couple of unreleased tracks.
The longer the show went on, the better it got. The crowd, a diverse cross-section of young and old fans which at first seemed to lack much of a pulse, came to life, as did Jewel. She showed off a hilarious sense of humor as well as the depth of her appreciation for the success she’s achieved over the years.
Jewel also explained the origins of some of her songs. For example, she wrote “Hands,” from her 1998 “Spirit” record, when she was 18 and reduced to shoplifting food, and almost dying in an emergency room parking lot with kidney problems and no health insurance. She came to realize it was up to her to change things in her life, and after a local DJ played a bootleg recording of “Who Will Save Your Soul” on the radio, her career was off and running.
Jewel strapped on her electric guitar for one of the best songs of the night, “Haunted” from her “0304” record. The guitar and the vocals both wailed and the song spoke of obsession. “Let me speak quietly/ So your heart can hear/ I will hypnotize and mesmerize you/with the sound of your own fear.”
Of course the early hits were what many people came to hear, and Jewel certainly delivered. “Foolish Games” was a perfect example of how her voice can go from great heights to great depths over the course of one line.
A lost opportunity for audience participation came when Jewel sang “You Were Meant for Me.” I’m certain there would have been many happy participants had a singalong happened. Still, Jewel did take several requests and shared plenty of banter with the crowd.
Jewel, who is now 38, wrote her very first song when she was 16. It ended up being the first single of her career. Before playing “Who Will Save Your Soul,” Jewel told us she cried the first time she heard it on the radio because she was certain she sounded like Kermit the Frog.
Encores came in the form of Kris Kristofferson’s 1970 country hit “Help Me Make it Through the Night” and then an even older country tune, Elton Britt’s “Chime Bells.” Jewel sang it a cappella and the standout feature of the song is the yodeling, which she took to a whole other level, ending in a frenzied rush of shimmering vocals.
Would the show have perhaps been more riveting with a band? Probably. But you gotta hand it to Jewel. Her voice is as powerful as ever and can go from a near whisper to a raise-the-roof wail seemingly without effort. She’s also got a sensational stage presence, sparkling sense of humor and palpable appreciation for her fans. All that added up to a memorable night out.