Not liking Jonathan Richman is a bit like not liking Mr. Rogers. The Boston-bred singer radiates kindness and joy with a disarmingly naive charm. Once a forerunner of punk music with his band the Modern Lovers in the early 1970s, Richman's sweet, playful demeanor found its natural home in the more simplified environs of an acoustic singer-songwriter. Last night at Rubber Gloves, his warm stage presence proved the perfect antidote to the icy winter weather hitting North Texas.
Richman started playing music at 15 before launching his career with the Modern Lovers, who greatly influenced punk and indie rock in their short run together. But Richman has long since shed his punk tendencies for a softer approach and gone on to tour almost constantly ever since. He's currently performing as an acoustic duo, playing guitar with longtime drummer Tommy Larkins, whose contributions to the live show cannot be overstated.
Larkins is an incredible drummer and he knows Richman well after touring with him for over two decades. He did several solos last night, during which Richman made his way into the crowd playing a tambourine, cowbell or maracas. Larkin had a very small drum kit with a bongo instead of a snare; he used a percussion mallet and a drum brush. The duo improvised well with each other, but also with reactions from the audience and the sound of a train passing by the venue.
There were no openers and the show started at 9 p.m., as advertised. The miserably cold weather and news of an impending storm did not keep the devoted audience away; they showed up and filled most of the room. Richman and Larkins very casually walked in to the performance space and the stage lit up. They greeted the crowd before getting onstage and started immediately. Their entrance was so nonchalant that many people missed it and filed into the venue during the first song of the night.
Richman's live sound is always in a state of flux. But these days he has a wonderfully breezy sound that has clearly been influenced by music from all over the world, especially slow Spanish guitar. He sang in English, French and of course Spanish, the language he is especially fascinated by. These seasoned musicians played very loosely, restructuring songs whenever Richman felt like adding lyrics, extraneous vocals or when he spoke to the audience. It was a very moving and intimate performance, but it seemed effortless.
Richman played with volume constantly throughout the set, playing his guitar softly or loudly, filling the room with his voice coming out of the speakers, or stepping away from the microphone to address the crowd without amplifying his vocals. His guitar microphone was also on the stand, and he often stepped away from it as well, playing softly to the crowd, sometimes bending down on one knee.
There was an obnoxious girl who yelled some random nonsense a couple of times. Richman entertained her at first before telling her to quit while she was ahead. Everyone laughed and she was not heard from again. Otherwise it was a great crowd, both young and old, and noticeably quiet before the show. But when the music started they were very polite, attentive and enthusiastic. There were few if any phones out during this performance. High stages can be a pain in the neck but the Rubber Gloves venue is small so close proximity makes it a nonissue, perhaps even an enhancement.
The music was disarmingly easy on the ears and Richman had the crowd's complete attention. His ability to enunciate is sheer perfection; he seems to sing to every person individually. Richman's eyes rarely blinked and he clearly tried to make eye contact with as many people as possible. He has equal parts great songwriting, chops, showmanship and humor. He was consistently funny throughout the set. You get the impression that he does not know exactly why people think he is funny, but as a performer he definitely knows how to use the laughs.
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Richman hasn't released an album since 2010, but that's no problem with an enormous back catalog and an ever evolving live sound. He ended the set with a long and passionate rendition of "When We Refuse to Suffer," definitely the highlight of the set. He started the song with an introduction, explaining that he never smokes marijuana because it made him violent the one time he tried it. He also explained that this same fear made him never try drinking. He said he tried music and it enhanced his suffering. But this is to be taken with a grain of salt because Richman is now in his 60s and he started the story by saying he was almost 50, then later claimed he was 55.
Richman played for a little over an hour and did one more song for the encore, "Give Paris One More Chance." After that he was through, warning the crowd of the impending storm. But no one would have had any problem with getting snowed in with Jonathan Richman, that sounds like a party.
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