On stage at Pearl Street last night was Jonathan Richman, a peculiarly appealing musician who has been delighting audiences since his earliest days busking in Cambridge Common, and who with his Modern Lovers and after as a solo act, created 30 albums, each of which is like him–unlike anyone else.
Since the ’70s, Richman has played his unique style of poignant, childlike music, making solo albums and actively touring and doing it all in his own way, including refusing to sing his most famous song, ‘Roadrunner’ because, as retold in a Vice article, by Ernie Brooks. “People like that song too much; I don’t think we should do it anymore….”
Like I said, he’s different, including an aversion to loud music that would hurt his fan’s ears…he explained this in the same story retold by Brooks. “And if it’s real, the people will hear it, even if it’s quiet, if there’s magic in it.” He never denied the magic of rock ‘n’ roll—he just said if it was really quiet, you could hear the words better, and that was part of this whole shift.
At Pearl Street, with an elegantly spare ensemble–drummer Tommy Larkins on a drum kit with a congo instead of a snare–Richman, trim and spry, looked younger than 65 years while gently coaxing out songs, twirling on stage, and looking out at the audience with an earnestness that is rarely seen on a rock and roll stage.
He’s still a child trapped in that body, but is as lithe as a ballerina as he keeps the volume down and refuses to be a rock star. “This isn’t a concert,” he tossed out, indicating that this, like the other shows in the 13 city tour, are more just gatherings of the tribe.
A friend I was with at the show said he was disappointed that Richman is somewhat of a cartoonish figure now, despite his musical depth, and that he cultivates his notion of ‘look at how cute I am’ to a fault. Like me, Joe wanted to hear more of the great songs, from his vast vault, but they weren’t being played that night.
I was hoping for a few songs I knew too–but his renditions of “Vermeer,” and one tune “The Old World” about nostalgia (yes they had bonhomie and they had corsets but they also had cruelty) was particularly powerful. I was happy to hear one familiar hit, and a perfect anthem for the city where the concert took place, the jaunty “I was Singing in a Lesbian Bar.”
The show was packed with true fans, who gasped when they heard Richman begin to play “The Old World,” since it was such a classic old tune from long ago. One disturbing aspect of the show was the chatter taking place as Richman sang quiet tunes. Why pay $17 to chat while a talented musician known for gentle quiet songs, plays in front of you.
Thankfully, it made no difference to Richman, and he closed out his 80-minute set with song about how you have to suffer to feel joy. Like so many of the songs, this one was right to the heart.