By Maura McAndrew | 15 March 2011
A Jonathan Richman concert is likely to give you a warm and fuzzy feeling. At last Tuesday’s show in Pittsburgh, I felt it immediately as the polite, jovial crowd gathered around the stage cheering the opening act, a local yo-yo expert who performed mildly interesting stunts and uttered cheesy one-liners. This act was more appropriate for the few young children in attendance, but the mixed crowd ranging from middle-aged parents to high school hipsters applauded, smiled, and laughed gleefully. It’s as though we were all asking ourselves, “What would Jonathan do?”
Why is it that the mere presence of Jonathan Richman fosters such goodwill? It’s surely related to the innocent, nostalgic subject matter of his songs, which reflect a relentlessly optimistic view of the world while also grappling with the loss of childhood. This, combined with his specifically kid-geared songs (“Ice Cream Man”) and his 1960s romanticizing (“Parties in the USA”) are what allow him to appeal to everyone, from your grandmother to your four-year-old nephew. My friends and I were remarking on how surprised we were that his shows don’t sell out instantly: everyone who hears him seems to like what they hear, perhaps because the melodies are so simple, the lyrics so witty, the emotions so universal.
Richman’s shows are especially intimate; he eschews the high, spacious stages at venues like Mr. Small’s in favor of a tiny platform right in front, with just enough space for his mic and Tommy Larkins’s drum kit. Plucking on a lightweight nylon-string guitar, Richman began with “No One Was Like Vermeer” from 2008’s Her Beauty Was Raw and Wild. He wasted no time in connecting with the crowd, introducing himself and Larkins mid-song, and coming out from behind the mic to shake sleigh bells at us. Through the next few songs’ worth of material from Her Beauty as well as last year’s O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth, he often stopped strumming and singing to shimmy in front of the stage, sometimes shaking bells, sometimes not. Larkins kept a stoic demeanor, brushing and tapping to accompany Richman’s whims. Richman, his intense eyes on the crowd, made it pretty impossible to feel self-conscious. He’s not at all afraid to look ridiculous, and projects the sense that to show inhibition would be to disappoint him greatly.
In a continued effort at community-building, Richman paused after “I Was the One She Came For” to make sure everyone could see, encouraging the short to come forward if “someone taller got in front of them.” A group moved up to sit in front of the stage like it was story hour, which it sort of was: Richman launched into a hilarious and touching new composition entitled “Bohemia,” reflecting on his younger days as a pretentious artiste in Boston. He engaged the crowd to sing along with the refrain, in “one voice,” and we happily, easily complied.
The set as a whole felt like a nice balance: there were a few dips into the back catalog with the crowd-pleasing “I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar” (during which Richman trotted around smacking a cowbell) and the Modern Lovers’ “Astral Plane.” New material like “We’ll Be the Noise, We’ll Be the Scandal” and a tribute song to Keith Richards kept things lively, countered by a hushed, beautiful cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Here It Is.”
Richman’s between- and during-song banter is a meandering and occasionally unhinged experience. During “Her Beauty is Raw and Wild,” he rambled his way into some sort of one-man play about a fighting couple, imitating male and female voices. Before the closing song, “When We Refuse to Suffer,” he expounded lengthily on the subject of rock club dressing room graffiti, explaining that it’s usually “guy stuff” that appears to have been written by “an eleven-year-old boy who just saw his first issue of Forum magazine.” How this related to the song was hazy, but it was entertaining nonetheless.
Due to the intimacy of the stage setup, Richman didn’t leave before the encore. He simply bowed, accepted his applause, and then launched into last year’s hilarious “My Affected Accent,” which involves a William F. Buckley impression and lines like “I said ‘feline’ when I should have said ‘cat.’” This of course left the crowd wanting more, and Richman had to call Larkins from offstage (“Tommy!” “What?”) to come back and play just one more. The little kids in the front row looked tired and began to sit down. Their parents clutched their shoulders, grinning, not paying their discontent any mind. It was purely good vibes throughout the crowd, from the group smelling strongly of weed to manic dancing guy to the high school sweethearts off to the side.
After the final song, Richman amiably posed with fans, fixing his intense gaze on their camera lenses. Fans streamed slowly out of the club, reluctant to get back into their cars. Tomorrow we’ll be back to our cynicism, our feelings of frustration and malcontent. But for now, we can bask in the glow of a group of people, coming together giddily and gleefully, turning starry eyes on the past and appreciating the generosity of the present.