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Spy Review: Jonathan Richman at the Avalon by Mark Pelavin

[The Talbot Spy]

By Mark Pelavin

Rock icon Jonathan Richman, who delighted an appreciative crowd at the Avalon Theatre last week, was dancing like no one was watching long before most of us had ever heard the phrase. In addition to writing a slew of great songs about dancing, including the crowd favorite Dancing in a Lesbian Bar, Richman is likely to break out in dance in the middle of a song. Where some might use guitar solos to take a song to another level, Richman just lays his guitar on the floor and dances.

Who is Jonathan Richman? He is a singer-songwriter who has been making music and touring for over 50 years. He is an iconoclast whose songs celebrate everything from his hometown of Boston to Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and from the joys of wine to the joys of just walking down the street. Rolling Stone ranked his seminal song Roadrunner at #77 in its list of greatest songs ever (right between Richman would be amused to see, Reach Out (and I’ll Be There) and I Walk the Line). But Richman did not play Roadrunner last week. He plays without a set list and chooses the songs he wants to play at any given moment.

What he did play was a 22-song set of his unique music that absolutely thrilled the overflow audience at the theatre. Ranging from 1976’s Girlfren to a few songs that I’m pretty sure he improvised on the spot, and singing in English, French, Italian, Arabic (I think), and Ojibway, Richman shared a stunningly diverse set.  But, however diverse, every song was authentically Jonathan Richman. (Girlfren, it’s worth noting, contains, as Richman acknowledged from the stage, one of the worst rhymes in the history of recorded music: “That’s a girlfriend/Said G-I-R-L-F-R-E-N.”)

In a recent interview, Richman explained, “Some of the songs presented might be in different languages; this is not to be esoteric or clever, it’s because the different languages help me express different feelings sometimes.”  He is inspired by paintings (and has songs about Picasso, Vermeer and Matise), poetry, and by colors (as evidenced by one of his newer songs, an instrumental entitled “Guitar In Orange Drums In Pale Purple”).

At the Avalon, Richman accompanied himself on guitar and was joined by his long-time drummer, Tommy Larkins. Richman’s guitar sound is as unique as his songwriting – he plays an acoustic guitar strung with nylon strings such as a classical or flamenco guitarist would use, and often seems to get so carried away in his singing and dancing that he just forgets to play. Larkins – with his long-sleeve black t-shirt, jeans, uncombed hair, unshaven face, and dark sunglasses – looked just as much like a rock star as Richman looked like a suburban dad (or grandfather). It is challenging to provide rhythm for music that can be as quiet as Richman’s; Larkins got it just right.

Here is what is most memorable about Richman’s songs and his performance:  They are 100% guileless. Richman has an extensive set of lyrical tools at his disposal, but they do not seem to include sarcasm, snark, or irony. Their absence can be jarring to today’s listeners. When he sings, for example, “In Tompkins Square Park, a couple is meeting/Say what you want, but I feel my heart beating/ Cause I love springtime in New York/Springtime in New York I do,” (from Springtime in New York) there is no escaping his genuine and almost childlike enthusiasm. 

Richman is a one-of-a-kind artist. His songwriting is sophisticated and simple at the same time. His dancing is endearing, his stage presence welcoming, and his love of life is contagious. I cannot remember a more fun night of music.

Mark Pelavin, the founder of Hambleton Cove Consulting, is a writer, consultant, and music lover living very happily in St. Michaels.