Jonathan Richman at Detroit Bar Last Night
December 9, 2010
While not necessarily a household name, Jonathan Richman has become a beloved cult figure in modern music. From his teenage start in Modern Lovers in the 1970s through his considerable solo discography, he's always had an uncanny ability to mix the yearning of youth with the regrets of older years.
After 40 years of composing and performing, he gets a little more exposure every year; kids discover his songs on film soundtracks, or find him through another musician's allusion. In the rock and roll textbooks of the future, he might have his own chapter in the section of great singer-songwriters, nestled in between Harry Nilsson and John Darnielle.
Although he was greeted with wild applause upon entering the stage, Jonathan kept his cool. "Hi everybody. Hello," he said politely, and with that he started strumming his guitar in his trademark jaunty way.
He had no guitar strap. Instead, the guitar became an extension of himself, moving as he moved, a natural foundation for his warbly voice.
With an affectation of innocence, he charmed the entire audience; everyone was oohing and ahhing and giggling; and yet, his eyes, hazel and limitless, suggested a world-weariness beneath the "aw shucks" tone.
"Ever hear someone say they were going to pick up a girl? Pick her up? Doesn't that make her sound like meat, in a supermarket, like 'I'll take this six-pack of beer and these cigarettes...and this hot girl'? Well?" He waited for a response. "Well, does it? Or doesn't it? Does it or doesn't it?" He stopped playing, ready for us to answer: "It does."
He nodded approvingly, then took that obstinate attitude into the next song, "If You Want to Leave Our Party, Just Go (I mean, it's just a party)." Most of the songs blended into each other, connected by long instrumental breaks where Jonathan would shake sleigh bells over our heads, or let his longtime drummer, Tommy Larkins, solo on congas for a while.
When these transitions were thrown in with his conversational additions to songs ("as a 23 year old I was self-conscious of why I loved this life..."), it was sometimes hard to pick out the familiar refrains. But instead of making his set murky, it made it more "Jonathan," a melange of rhythms, styles, languages and anecdotes.
"Sounds like a nice brown, hmm?" he asked after "These Bodies Were Made to Cavort." He told us that he could see colors in music, and the colors affected him a lot, to the point where he would become hypnotized in the produce section. "So if you hear color in my guitar, it's intentional," he reassured us. "Like a nut brown, or a lively green."
One of the most touching moments of the night was when he played "When We Refuse to Suffer," a condemnation of apathy and self-defeat. When we cut ourselves off from feeling, he argued, we are less human, and what's more, we're boring - "we now are saccharine, we now are aspartame , we now are Nesquick." "What did we come down to Earth for if not to fall?" he asked, adding softly, "Pero podemos levantarnos otra vez."
After a few more rollicking songs, Jonathan asked if we could handle one more. After an enthusiastic cheer, he warned us that he was heading towards emotion, if we wanted to come along. He played a beautiful rendition of "Not So Much to Be Loved As to Love," and, as if he hadn't buttered us up enough, he gestured towards the crowd on the last iteration of "...to love." Oh Jonathan!
Opener Gail Davies was accompanied by her son Chris Scruggs on guitar and an unnamed upright bass player. Like Jonathan Richman, she may be well-known to avid country-western fans, making a few hit singles in the 1980s, but even after years of hard work, she remains largely unknown. The trio started off a little slow, but they soon hit their stride, delivering heartbreaking crooning and wild skiffle-style guitar solos. Gail's Southern grace and maple-syrup voice warmed us up nicely for our headlining hero.
Critic's Bias: I love men who aren't afraid to be silly and adorable. Bonus points if they do it with an affected accent.
The Crowd: Skewing towards the older side of Detroit Bar's usual clientele. They mostly remained still-no doubt with reverence, but Jonathan pouted, wondering why more people weren't dancing. Bodies were made to cavort and contort, after all.
Overheard in the Crowd: "Nice. Nice. Nice."--One man's enthusiasm after every guitar break (which was often).
Random notebook dump: After the show, my friend offered this theory, in between thoughtful chews of a burrito from Alejandro's: "I think Lil B and Jonathan Richman might be the same person. It's possible. The way they present themselves, the topics they sing about. Think about it."Setlist:
"Her Beauty is Raw and Wild"
If You Want To Leave Our Party, Just Go
Let Her Go Into the Darkness
The World Is Showing Me Its Hand
That Summer Feeling
These Bodies That Came to Cavort
Sa Vox M'Atisse
Here It Is (Leonard Cohen)
When We Refuse to Suffer
"Una persona mi amor..."
I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar
Her Mystery Not of High Heels
Not So Much to Be Loved as To Love