Starline Social Club, Oakland; CA
Thursday, July 28
Jonathan Richman is one of the hardest-working footnotes in music. His Modern Lovers group and album a touchstone, something every home should have – indirectly he helped create Talking Heads and The Cars, even Violent Femmes perhaps. He all but invented David Byrne. And then, wide-eyed, he vanished from anything resembling a bright light, ditched his grubby punk prototypes, buried his overt love for The Velvet Underground inside a few songs and fled toward something resembling various folk musics, and then sped towards being the world’s greatest faux-shy busker.
So here he is on stage in Oakland California with the long-serving Tommy Larkins on drums – a full set this time, not the stand-up cocktail kit – and Richman and Larkins walk through the crowd to arrive on stage at the Starline Social Club, bristling past a few back-pats from an excited audience. Richman’s voice is running through a vocal PA he’s controlling from the stage, there’s an overhead drum mic. The guitar is unplugged,
Richman’s flamenco-lite strumming captured through a waist-height microphone. Many times he puts the guitar down after introducing a theme and picks up a cowbell, shaker or sleigh bells. It’s a full body thrust into the various percussive bursts too, Larkins sitting down inside the slight groove as Richman propels it and then is pulled all about the stage by his comedy-saunter of dance-moves.
We’re treated to No One Was Like Vermeer from 2008’s Because Here Beauty Is Raw and Wild and it’s a fine way to start. From there Richman mixes old solo favourites with a handful of semi-improvised spots, glorious banter and a wee few brand new songs from the wonderful Ishkode! Ishkode! (his first record in six years) – not that he even mentions he has a new album or announces the songs, or even has a scrap of merchandise to flog or promote. But from Ishkode O Sun is a fun wee holler, and Whoa! How Different resonates as if already an old favourite.
Speaking of old favourites, the early inclusion of I Was Dancing At The Lesbian Bar seems to – rightly – earn him the full attention and respect of the audience for the entire show, not least because he demonstrates those vital dance moves once again. So hypnotic, so intoxicating, so magical and mesmerising is Richman live that he leaves out Lesbian Bar’s greatest line (“Well the first bar things were stop and stare/But in this bar things were laissez faire!”) and it isn’t even close to a disappointment. That’s because we’ve already seen him mime so wonderfully to both line endings of the couplet “In the first bar they were drinking sips/In this bar they should shake their hips”. He stops and repeats that line. And then again. A new shake of the hips each time. A slight twist on how he’s holding his imaginary glass for miming the ‘sips’ part.
Each Richman performance is its own album or movie, its own moment and set of movements.
Those eyes are both hangdog and child-like optimism all at once and all the time. The eyebrows might have been painted on by Vermeer, or created by Lladró with the leftovers from a line of their ceramic clowns.
Jonathan Richman is all at once sincere and earnest and then in on the joke of it all – the end-goal a type of entertainment that revels in the happiness of just that moment. He had a whole room singing and swaying as he sang his weird little everyday household-item songs about not liking fabric softener, about seeking out company and/or being content just holding your own, songs about small-town preoccupations, songs about heartland America and looking for places – always – for the heart to land.
Most of his songs sit inside or around some sort of re-write of Hang On Sloopy or anything by Bo Diddley or Buddy Holly or the early Lou Reed. But no one could ever write – or perform – a song like Jonathan Richman.
It’s such a strange, magical world. He’s funny and wise and gently daft and silly as well. His voice mangles vowels into rhymes and towards rhythms that best suit the shape of each and any song and then again to suit how it wants it to be placed right then and there in that moment. And his guitar playing is wonderful.
There he was up there on the stage crooning for an hour in English and Spanish and French, sometimes just a brittle drumbeat behind him, nowhere for the song – or the singer – to go if it fell entirely to pieces. A remarkably brave, heartfelt and beautifully hilarious show from a man who does not participate in the internet, doesn’t own a computer, and nightly reconciles the fact that his proto-punk music is not the reason for his existence, even if it’s a musical memory many of his still hold dear. He knows that. I’m sure it means the world to him still too. Through the music we hear his heartbeat.