Skip to content

Jonathan Richman @ Union Transfer.

November 22, 2013

Text by Kevin Stairiker.

Some performers are lucky enough to get to a point in their careers where they don’t have to rely on bygone hit singles and notable album cuts to pull a crowd, and can please simply by showing up. Jonathan Richman is one of those guys.

It is safe to say that the Union Transfer crowd, ranging in age from 18 to 65 judging by the varying levels of grey, recognized maybe one-third of the set list. It didn’t matter though, because Jonathan Richman was there, in front of them, crooning in English and Spanish and Italian and Arabic about parties and busses and summer feelings.

Accompanied by his trusty drum playing sidekick Tommy Larkins, Richman, 62, strummed a classical guitar and sang songs from nearly every corner of his forty year musical career. At times, the music was so quiet that the clinking glasses in the back bar were given unintentional solos in the midst of a song. Richman’s playing style is incredibly unique and has been refined over the years to the point where every move seemed to have just entered his brain before he executed them. He played without a guitar strap, which allowed him to flip the guitar in his hands or put it on the ground so that he could dance for a few seconds, both of which he did often.  Every move appeared spontaneous, which is the true mark of a seasoned performer. At some points, he would simply step away from the mic and the overhead lights to stand in the dark and admire Larkins’ playing,letting the audience know that this was technically a two-man show.

Midway through the show, Richman did a short musical interlude on the subject of playing old songs. Singing in Spanish – but explaining what every line meant, Richman compared songs to old bread as a way to acknowledge the sliver of people that came to hear “Roadrunner” or any other assorted Modern Lovers songs. Richman never had anything close to a hit song, but his songs with the Modern Lovers, written when he was 19, were as close as he got. The loudest audience pop did however come from a song released the year I was born, “I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar.”

When Richman and Larkins locked into a groove, the audience couldn’t help but dance. Occasionally Richman would hike his guitar up, which signified a switch from straight chords to slinky, bossanova-influenced guitar solos. The best moments always came when Richman would step away from the microphone, put his guitar down and stand on the edge of the stage, singing directly to the people and never losing his smile while doing so.

He even managed to fit in a tribute to his “boyhood hero,” Lou Reed, recounting a story of his sixteen-year old self meeting The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol at a show in Boston. Richman confessed to Warhol that he didn’t understand his art. Warhol replied, “Yes you do.”

“That’s how nice he was…that’s how nice all of them were,” Richman said mournfully while strumming the laidback chords to his song “Behomia.”

Possibly the most lasting image of the whole show came at the very end. After playing his last song and saying goodbye, Jonathan Richman put his guitar back into the guitar case that had been sitting on stage with him throughout the show and walked backstage as the house lights came on. In my mind, that’s how all of his shows begin and end, the simple packing and unpacking of the guitar, playing for small audiences around the world unamplified and unadorned but beloved completely.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: