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the pathetic caverns - music by artist - Jonathan Richman

eclectic reviews and opinions

Jonathan Richman (with Vic Chesnutt)

14 October 2005

Somerville Theatre, Somerville, MA

Shortly after Vic Chesnutt wheeled himself onto the Somerville Theatre stage, he rolled back out of the spotlight with his guitar, and faced offstage. At first I thought he was tuning, but as the minutes dragged on, it became clear that he was actually practicing. Midway through the set we learned why: we got to hear a song Chesnutt had written earlier that day. "I'm not sure if it sucks or not," he remarked. I wasn't sure either. It had the hallmarks of the typical Vic Chesnutt composition -- open-stringed chord voicings, an elastic sense of time, and lyrics that are elliptical and nonlinear, but too meaningful to qualify as stream-of-consciousness. But this particular song examined the dangers of the creative process -- shaky, self-absorbed ground for almost any songwriter -- and discussed reading blogs on economics before devolving into a "Send in the Clowns" parody with robots in place of clowns.

The evidence suggests that hanging out with Jonathan Richman has had some impact on Chesnutt. A decidedly silly new number characterized the experience as "life enriching" and likened "Jonathan and [his drummer] Tommy" [Larkins] to a "couple of swamis." In a killer triplet, Chesnutt managed to rhyme "nihilist" (himself), "smile-ist" (Richman), and "vilest" (how it would be for him to wreck the audience's sunny mood) before erupting in a big sing-along chorus of, "I don't want to bring you fuckers down."

One of the highlights was "Distortion," drawn from 2001's Left to His Own Devices. "Faith is the lies we tell and tell ourselves," Chesnutt sings. "Life is the lies we tell everybody else." The words have the ring of an aphorism in the making, and Chesnutt dangles them on an unusually immediate hook. But at the very instant the song begins to feel predictable, it veers off on a tangent. Light hits the eye and triggers a series of chemical reactions, all subject to error, Chesnutt explains over dark Neil Young-ish riffs. He attacks the very notion of objective truth.

Chesnutt closed with another new song, "Would you sign my...?." It's perhaps the only anti-file-sharing rant I've heard that's more funny than whiny.

Richman opened his set with "He Gave Us the Wine to Taste," an unequivocal indictment of criticism from last year's Not So Much to be Loved as to Love. "Not to talk about," he admonished, "Don't waste it."

It's been in critical vogue for some time to suggest that the true spirit of rock 'n' roll materializes in various icons (Berry, Presley, Lennon, Richards, Morrison, Pop, Ramone Cobain: change the names to suit your taste; but only dead men -- or men who look dead -- need apply) and then almost immediately gets subsumed in corporate bullshit. Personally, I'm annoyed by this attitude. It reinforces the stereotype of rock as primarily an expression of youthful male aggression, and de-emphasizes the value of music that aims above the listener's crotch.

Jonathan Richman exists as both an example and a refutation of this notion. There's no doubt in my mind that he is an incarnation of the true spirit of rock 'n' roll. Nothing else could keep him from being ridiculous. Frequently in his performances he'll stop singing and playing guitar -- even put the guitar down on the side of the stage -- and just dance around the stage and clap and maybe play some percussion. (It was in these moments that I most appreciated Tommy Larkins' wonderful drumming; I've seen Richman perform solo, and those sets sometimes flagged when Jonathan stopped playing for too long.) Richman's dancing frequently extended to hip-thrusting gyrations that recall the excesses of frontmen from Elvis to David Lee Roth. But Jonathan's special magic is that he hardly ever seems egotistical or contrived, and he never sinks into parody. It works because you can tell that he's not crazy-dancing because the audience expects it; he's just expressing how the music makes him feel.

Richman's songwriting is profoundly, even defiantly, unmacho. He sings about the compromises that make relationships work, feeling melancholy on a fall evening, and being uncomfortable with acting the way the guys down at the bar expect you to act. Many of his songs are characterized by warmth and humor, but they're not all sweetness and light. He stamped his feet petulantly as he snarled "I hate the silent treatment." It was an arresting moment, almost a little creepy. It's remarkable not just because it suggests that Jonathan Richman must not be a joy to be around all the time, but because it acknowledges his foibles without glamorizing them.

Richman's iconic status sometimes threatens to overshadow his accomplishments as a musician. His vocal phrasing is unique, almost instantly identifiable, but his range is more substantial than his reputation as a quirky performer suggests. His technical prowess is visible in odd ways. He performed songs in several languages, and often provided spoken translations for parts of the lyrics in the middle of performing them. It didn't leave him many chances to take a breath, but his delivery wasn't affected.

His approach to playing guitar is also unusual. He played the set with two microphones, one for his vocals, and one at waist level for his guitar, which was otherwise unamplified (and incidentally, strapless). When he played a solo he raised the neck of his guitar so it was also being picked up by the vocal mic, which not only made it louder, but changed the tonal quality. It was an economical but effective technique that he made look deceptively easy.

This review originally appeared at Avoid Peril.

Jonathan Richman

Surrender to Jonathan

(Vapor, 1996)

So this is this first "band" record that Jo Jo has done in a while, though most of the folks on it have been playing with Jonathan for a while. Longtime producer Brennan Totten is kind of conspicuously absent, though, the label is new, and the feeling I get is that this record is trying reach a slightly broader audience -- and, damn it, that's just fine. Far too many people remember him only for penning "Pablo Picasso" and dismiss his solo career as dippy and lightweight -- criticisms that are intermittently accurate, perhaps, but overlook the the plain-spoken honest emotion of songs like "When I Say Wife" and the good-natured humor of songs like "Velvet Underground" and "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar." The rocked-up remakes of that last song, "When She Kisses Me" and "Egyptian Reggae" don't sound quite right to me yet, but many of the new compositions are classic Jojo -- "Rock'n'Roll Drummer Straight from the Hospy-Tel," in particular finds him sounding almost snide, and rocks along very nicely indeed. I don't know if this record will make him the new converts that the record company seems to want -- in fact, I kind of doubt it -- but it should please most everybody who followed him through his years on Rounder records, and it certainly wouldn't make a bad introduction to his post-Modern Lovers music.

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