Show Review: Jonathan Richman at Le National
By Matt Lipson
Few performers would thrive on the minimal setup Jonathan Richman brought to his intimate show in Montreal on June 6, but the cult icon needed little more than an unplugged nylon string guitar and his drumming sidekick Tommy Larkins to charm the intimate audience.
Richman, long known for his childlike enthusiasm and wonder, drifted seamlessly between song, suddenly remembered bits of poetry, rapturous flourishes of flamenco guitar, wide-eyed dance breaks, and meandering banter delivered mostly in earnest, if slightly broken French. Part performance artist, part stand-up comedian, jazz improvisor, and plain-spoken poet laureate, Richman is the rare breed of artist whose disinterest in convention has only seem to have grown over fifty years.
Seldom does an artist engage as personally as Richman did with the small crowd, holding eye contact and addressing individuals to fill in the occasionally forgotten French word. His intentions for the experience are pure and admirable, without structure or a setlist, let alone screens and photography. Where other artists stopping mid-song to adjust the levels on their guitar could have connoted under-preparedness, Jonathan Richman doing it was a joy to behold. No pretense or formality; instead, he evoked the modesty and relatability of a Charles Aznavour-humming older neighbour mowing his lawn.
Richman’s sidekick, Tommy Larkins, elevates the off-the-cuff nature of the show. He accompanied with just two bongo drums and a cymbal, seldom using more than a light touch with his hands and a telepathic ability to know when to follow and when to hold off. Their dynamic is so understated and so much in service of the moment that Larkins’s presence was more often felt than heard.
Hardly a novelty or comedy show, Richman’s set ran the gamut of emotions at a striking pace. From the sentimental (“Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild,” “On a du soleil”) to the wickedly funny (“Shameless, Shameless,”) to the downright profound (“I Had to See the Harm I’d Done Before I Could Change”), the 90-minute set reflected the oftentimes paradoxical nature of Jonathan Richman’s career: proto-punk, court jester, romantic comedy narrator. He sang no fewer than four tracks in French and at least one in Spanish, welcomed an accompanist on a droning tambura for one song, and channeled French songbird Charles Trenet, slotting Modern Lovers fan-favourites “Pablo Picasso” and “Egyptian Reggae” casually between. He came onstage reciting Rumi and left it singing Leonard Cohen.
One had only to watch the small audience of 200 at most to understand the breadth and depth of the experience. Twenty-something-year-olds wearing blue and white striped shirts in his honour, fans lovingly spurring on Richman’s breathless French musings, bouquets of roses passed forward in gratitude; Jonathan Richman is an artist whose influence is as underestimated as it ever was unlikely, as beloved for his spirit as for his talent.