TEXT/PHOTOS BY JENNIFER KELLY
Jonathan Richman is the world’s oldest child, his bug-eyed sense of wonder filtered through world-weary years of experience. His mid-song spoken word intervals can conjure the unguarded innocence of a six-year-old, or they can sound like the disgruntled peeves of an oldster. It is a curious mixture, the way he dances with the herky-jerky abandon of a preschooler, his face shadowed with a very adult sadness and knowing.
Tonight’s show is just Richman and his long-time drummer Tommy Larkins, who mans a set of heavily padded percussion instruments. It’s not easy to play so softly and make it interesting, but Larkins keeps it down in style, line-drawing bossa nova, samba, swing and rock ‘n roll rhythms with brushed snare, kick drum and conga. Richman, for his part, plays a strapless acoustic guitar, executing frantic strums and intricate runs while holding the instrument nearly vertical across his chest. Sometimes he picks up a set of jingle-y bells, shaking them in wild gyrations of hips and arms and torso; his eyes remain utterly still.
There is no album to plug for this tour—not that it’s easy to imagine Richman in full promotional mode. He dips into the catalogue, fishing out crowd favorites like “Oh Moon, Queen of the Night” (and turning it into a diatribe against light pollution) and “Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild.” There’s an audible welcome to rousers like “La Fiesta Is Para Todos,” and a quiet appreciation for subtler “Springtime in New York.” A polyglot interval stretches four songs long, with Richman singing in French, Spanish, Italian and Hebrew; in this last song, we learn the “ka-ka-ka” (Hebrew) and “mezzo-mezzo” (Italian) and “just okay” (English) all mean roughly the same thing.
The crowd is older, mostly, a good number of them seated in the back, where the audio is good, but you can hardly see. But up front (where the reverse is true) a fair amount of grey is represented as well. There is far less checking of cell phones than usual, possibly because Richman turns “Take Me to the Plaza” into an anti-electronic-device rant midway through the show, or maybe it’s just a generational thing.
You can’t avoid the impression that Richman is, throughout, in character, a weird blend of 20s romantic crooner, idiot savant child and observational comic (Steven Wright comes to mind). Yet it’s such an intriguing persona, retaining a certain amount of romantic innocence after decades of performing in grotty clubs.
Richman’s last two songs hint at how the grit of the world both have and haven’t stuck to him. “The World Showing Its Hand,” recounts his own early childhood in Brookline, MA, where bus fumes, the smell of grease and piss, each “tell me a secret.” Somehow Richman has remained astonishingly open to human experience, a two-year-old’s enthusiasm continuing to stir in his shiny wide eyes. And doesn’t that hurt? Yes, in fact it does. The final song of the night, and the most moving of all, is “When We Refuse to Suffer.” It’s a stirring, rackety, rambunctious song with a radiant core, affirming the value of embracing all experiences, even painful ones. Otherwise, as Richman notes, “it’s just frozen pizza and twist-cap wine.”
“But I like frozen pizza and twist-cap wine,” bellows a man at the back, who has been singing along in a loud baritone for most of the second half of the show. Well, yes, embrace that, too. Jonathan Richman’s music is remarkably about everything — famous painters, true love, grimy cityscapes and even junk food. It’s a wide armed embrace of the world that is both childish and astonishingly wise.