The Great American Music Hall
San Francisco, Ca
Dec. 12, 2013
I was in no mood for a show.
After standing in the same square foot for three hours, hawking wine to upscale shoppers, slogging through the evening traffic-crunch up the peninsula, and circling the streets endlessly in search of parking, there was no part of me–body or mind–that wanted to stand at attention in another room full of strangers; whether or not musical entertainment entered the equation. Thank goodness that all of those bad vibes, that vicious reluctance, vanished the moment that Jonathan Richman took the stage at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
There was no fighting it, no way to stay stubborn, in front of such joyous performance. From his first exploratory movements–alighting across the stage with a guitar case in hand and a perplexed smile plastered across his face–he exuded an ageless, puckish quality that should be no surprise to anyone acquainted with his catalog. Since his early days with The Modern Lovers, playing Velvet Underground-indebted proto-punk, Richman has always displayed playfulness, in lyrics and arrangements, and a beyond-his-years wisdom that makes even his most trivial asides resonate.
Joined by longtime drummer, Tommy Larkins, Richman needed only his nylon stringed acoustic guitar and New England drawl to fill the room with genuine feeling and paint portraits of longing and triumph. Despite the reoccurring weight of the material, the 62 year-old singer-songwriter doesn’t deal with highfalutin allegories and complex characterizations. Rather, he breaks down personal experience into instantly relatable anecdotes, peppered with wit, poetic flourishes, and tempered absurdity.
Take the set opener, the title track from his 2010 release, O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth. Deviating from the lyric sheet from the get-go, Richman began with simple strumming and a laid-back lashing of everything electronic; every source of interfering frequencies and light pollution, delivered not with condemnation, but bemused rejection. After detailing all of the ways that we spoil the night, he gave an earnest apology to the moon for distracting from her guileless glory, for ignoring the natural luminescence that she provides every night. Alternating between singing and speaking, strumming the guitar in scattered bursts behind, there was no separation between stage banter and song lyrics, no line between planned attack and off-the-cuff additions.
Admittedly, part of the difficulty in distinction came from my lack of familiarity with the artist’s more recent albums. Without knowing most of the songs as they originally sounded, and the exact words that appeared on the recordings, it became a guessing game oriented around Jonathan’s richly expressive face and the chosen cadence for whatever description or joke came out. Narrating nearly every moment, to the extent that songs bled seamlessly into each other and the audience couldn’t determine when to applaud, Richman recalled more of a music based stand-up comedian, in the vein of Zach Galifianakis, than a traditional troubadour.
Whether or not his interjections were punchlines or earnest pleas, the performer’s eyes welled with an embracing empathy, almost to the verge of tears, that lent weight to every statement. Sometimes setting them at a thousand yard stare, or nodding back to check on Tommy; every so often, he’d lock with a random audience member and direct a select passage right to them, making that sweet, sad song just for that one individual. Even though the bulk of the room came converted, attentive, and appreciative from the onset, it’s hard to imagine anyone resisting his infectious energy and not falling under his charm.
Adding further to his appeal, Richman moved with the agility of a man half of his age–busting out a shimmy and a shake, or dashing behind the drums for an adjustment. During one particular dance break, a woman behind me shouted, “Work it out, Jonathan!” He responded with a solemn nod, a very firm commitment to general tomfoolery. Never standing still for longer than a line, he rotated through an arsenal of moves culled from an over 40-year career; seasoned but never appearing canned.
Of course, it’s easy to keep things fresh when you’re constantly shifting the formula. Most tracks saw switches between gentle strumming, Spanish-style guitar picking, and neatly efficient solos; Jonathan Richman’s casual proficiency evident in each instrumental tangent (the most surprising and enjoyable of the night, a brief bridge into Desmond Dekker’s “007 (Shanty Town)”). Larkins matched pace the whole way, providing brushed cymbals and snares, and playing the low-key counterpart perfectly. Their clear chemistry, a result of their decades-long collaboration, enabled every genre jump and last minute diversion to pass without interrupting the flow of the show.
Not content to merely switch styles, Richman also employed a variety of languages, singing in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and one that I couldn’t immediately identify. Introducing one foreign ditty, he explained that he was about to use 17 different Italian adjectives to say, “This is a bitching party,” injecting mystery and lyricism into the simplest phrases with mere translation. Savoring the syllables like a native speaker, Jonathan’s French accent was convincing enough that one commenter asserted, incorrectly, that the New England native must be Quebecois.
Despite the strength of the songs, some of the most enjoyable parts of the show were the performer’s offhanded conclusions. Two of my favorites: after rambling out a last verse, he said, “Et cetera, et cetera,” and stopped; working though a later chorus, he came to a halt, stating, “I don’t know where to end it, so I’ll end it there.” Devoid of any pretension, endearing in his flippant delivery, Richman put us all at ease with his easygoing nature and cut every sentimental moment with a fast following laugh line.
The highlight of the night came in an ode to one of his guitar heroes, the titular Keith Richards. Describing the elements of Richards’ cool, from his inimitable licks to his effortless style, Richman rounded out the tribute with a brief solo cribbed from “Brown Sugar” and a vamping impression. He captured the spirit of the Stones’ music, informed the audience on the legendary guitarist’s achievements, and spiced up the affair with some buoyant humor, all in one simple number.
A few songs later, when he gave a similar treatment to 17th Century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer, he compared the artist to his contemporaries, the celebrated Dutch Masters who painted enormous murals covering entire walls. Instead of stretching his art to widescreen visions, Vermeer stuck to small canvases, painting intricate scenes within deceptively small confines. Jonathan operates in much the same way, bestowing brilliance into the smallest, slightest ditties, making every strum and aside count. Whether it’s a night dancing in a lesbian bar or a day strolling in the plaza, Richman selects momentary slices of life to describe the greater yearnings and sources of meaning, meandering into profundity almost by accident.
He closed the evening with an extended resignation of the mind, an ode to setting down thought and letting heart take the reins. A hopeless romantic, a resigned realist, and a daring artist packed into one spry frame, Jonathan Richman is rock and roll’s Peter Pan, the eternal boy reminding us to find joy in the every day and never lose the wonder of the world. As long as he keeps performing, it’s a safe bet that we won’t.