I really shouldn’t even be posting this on the internet. According to Jonathan Richman, I should be telling you about his show face-to-face, instead of having my words pop up on some cold screen where you can’t even tell what my tone of voice is and where I can correct run-on sentences and make my ideas sound polished, but lacking in the awkward graceful immediacy of a live human.
As soon as Jonathan Richman, 66, hopped up on stage last night at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke he launched into “Take Me to the Plaza” a humorous, but sincere ramble about how he likes to get his news on the street, from people holding coffee cups, not from TV and newspapers and the internet. “People come up to me want to show me the band they’re in, some video on their iPhone and I don’t want to see some little TV screen with tinny sound. I want to go and see their band in person.” The overflow audience laughed and applauded nervously, like sinners in church, considering their own secret desires to take a photo of the legendary Jonathan. Jonathan himself has no cell phone, no email, no TV. He conducts media interviews by snail mail.
So the first habit the audience had to toss out the window was our digital pre-occupation. Consequently, more people were present and dancing instead of tapping their phones. The second habit to go was the expectation of a normal show. This concert would prove to be more of a performance-piece, conjuring-act about how to be attuned to love and wonder, than any kind of crowd-pleasing rendering of favorite songs. Jonathan is an artist and he plays what he feels like playing, not what the audience came to hear. For a man so full of sentiment, he is leery of nostalgia. In the same way, his romantic tendencies are cut with a nasal, Natick accent and smeary guitar-work.
Jonathan strummed a nylon-string acoustic into a microphone accompanied by Tommy Larkins on a drum-kit hit lightly with bundled-rod sticks. Over the years Jonathan has figured out this is the best way for him to play live- just a duo, not loud, yet rockin,’ like they were jamming in your kitchen. Bare-bones as they were, they gave every song a groove and a hook. The sound in the room was pin-drop perfect.
To keep it interesting, at any moment, in any song, Jonathan might walk out in front of the mikes to the edge of the stage and play unamplified. Then he would stop strumming altogether and start dancing exuberantly with maracas. Jonathan seemed really happy with the big crowd and the whole scene. He got the audience singing and clapping at the slightest instigation. Making eye contact with everyone, at the end of songs he would put his hands over his heart with genuine appreciation.
As magical as he was, Jonathan’s repertoire was spotty, like his albums. He is so charismatic and groovy he can make overly simplistic ditties sparkle, including ones in French, Italian, Spanish and Ojibwe, but why not play some bonafide classics like “New England” or God knows, “Roadrunner,” a beloved, essential rocker which Jonathan has not played live since 1973! In 2017, a third attempt was introduced in the state legislature to make “Roadrunner” the official song of Massachusetts. Jonathan is not interested. At Gateway City Arts he played only half of the haunting “The Fenway” and a mere 30 seconds of the magnificent “Summer Feeling.” Tantalizing.
We were treated to the instrumental “Egyptian Reggae” (recently featured on the Baby Driver soundtrack) and the passionate “No One Was like Vermeer.” You could easily write an answer song called “No One Is Like Jonathan.” The most energetic song of the night was a full-on version of “Dancing in a Lesbian Bar” with Jonathan conducting the audience sing-along. Towards the end of the show Jonathan got deep into reflective mode with songs in praise of vulnerability like “Surrender,” and “Not so Much to Love as to Be Loved.” The song “When We Refuse to Suffer” really got to me. Sometimes Jonathan is the wise fool who opens your heart with a handmade message. “When we refuse to suffer/ When we refuse to feel/ We suffer more/ It’s like air conditioning when we should be out in the summertime.”
After the show my 17 year-old son Chris was blown away. “I had no idea it would be like that,” he said. How could you? There is no one like Jonathan. We drove home in time to catch the second half of the Celtics-Warriors game. Final score- Boston 92- Golden State 88.
Here is “No One Was Like Vermeer” by Jonathan Richman from the album Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild, 2008.