Dec. 7, 2011
Great American Music Hall
Better than: Seu Jorge's Portuguese covers of David Bowie songs in The Life Aquatic.
With a gently weathered face, a nylon string guitar without a strap, awkwardly fitting slacks, and a striped shirt with a black cardigan, Jonathan Richman appeared onstage last night like a sea-faring culture vulture. His sole bandmate at the Great American Music Hall was drummer Tommy Larkins, whose kit consisted of an odd hybrid of cracked traditional cymbals and hand drums that he deftly battered with mallets. He wore an azure sports coat emblazoned with sparkling, embroidered butterflies and flowers, solidifying a casually eccentric stage presence. Together, the musicians looked like a ship-wrecked duo who'd spent the last few decades assimilating cultures of the Western hemisphere through their own bizarre lens, borrowing their favorite traits and altering them with flippant disregard for the outcome. And last night's crowd was elated to bare witness.
"Casually eccentric" may even begin to describe Richman's music. While completely unique, deceivingly simple, and fraught with references to art -- plus lyrics in various languages -- Richman's unusual songs remain unpretentious. Although perhaps best known for the work of his seminal '70s proto-punk band, The Modern Lovers (whose trademark song, "Roadrunner," became a frequently covered anthem of the early punk scene), Richman's set last night drew primarily from his work over the past decade. The newer music employs a riveting combination of minimal percussion, Latin rhythms and guitar playing, and unpredictable changes between Portuguese, English, and French lyrics.
With such consistent output, why should Richman appease the crowd by playing the old songs? While other aging musicians rely upon their 30-year-old back catalogs to satisfy nostalgic audiences, Richman's career has maintained an upward creative trajectory for decades -- and the discerning fans last evening were certainly not shouting for the anthems of yesteryear. Indeed, when he played "Old World," a cut from the first Modern Lovers LP, it was straight-ahead, but inflected with the nervous and emotive vocal style cultivated on recent records. Only half the song was actually performed: it ended abruptly, and it was difficult to tell whether that was intentional or not. But Richman gracefully began a new tune immediately. The man does what he wants.
Such improvisation was partially enabled by his minimal band. Most songs were extended minutes beyond their original studio versions. Lengthening each song was his tendency to insert playful spoken verses, indulge in beautiful improvised solos, and also to abandon his guitar in favor of small percussive instruments for measures at a time.
Following a captivating performance of "He Gave Us the Wine to Taste," Richman began telling the story of his move to New York City as a 16-year-old, delivered in a fast, rhythmic cadence and eliciting laughs and applause from the hypnotized crowd. The spoken interlude describing his teenage artistic aspirations with playful self-deprecation led into the song "Bohemia," which elaborates on his rejection of the "sterile suburbs," but mocks his own "pretentious artwork" and quest for a bohemian lifestyle. Making fun of his own self-centeredness, Richman surgically delivered the clever comment, "I was too egotistical for drugs back then. I'm Jonathan Richman, why would I need drugs?" Indeed, it's impossible to imagine how drugs would affect his already bizarre songwriting and personality.
Without a strap, Richman constantly held his guitar awkwardly out to his side, as if requesting a hug, and even included guitar acrobatics into his dancing. By utilizing a peculiar combination of the splits, hip gyrating, something resembling the Macarena, and a move similar to the limbo, his body motions were a highlight of last night's performance.
Near the end of the show, Richman raised one eyebrow above the other, extended his arms, and asked the audience with a quivering lip: "One more song?" His request for permission to continue playing was met with overwhelming encouragement. After the final tune, we were even treated to an a cappella outro. If Richman needed any validation for his eccentricity, he got it last night.
Personal bias: I've been a fan since I was 13. Of course, at that time, I was only familiar with the original Modern Lovers material. In fact, if you know the name of my first punk band (and the nom de plume I went by), you can find a video on Youtube of us covering "Roadrunner" live, with myself on vocal duties.
By the way: If you missed this, he has some upcoming shows in Northern California on this tour. The dynamic between him and Tommy Larkins was a crucial aspect of this performance, so it would be wise to catch this tour and witness the chemistry.