Jonathan Richman has been one of the most unique voices in pop music, or semi-popular music, since the 1970s. As the founder of the Modern Lovers, he wrote to proto-punk anthem “Roadrunner,” which is currently under consideration for becoming the official rock song for the State of Massachusetts. He then adopted a more guileless, child like persona and is best known by wider audiences, if at all, for his Greek chorus interludes in the movie There’s Something About Mary. Having never seen Richman perform live, he managed to drag me out of the comfort of my suburban home for a Sunday night gig in downtown Dallas.
I was expecting a quiet, acoustic show, but was blown away by a tremendously energetic performance. Richman works hard every second while onstage – whether dancing, making jokes, playing cowbell while strolling through the audience, mugging/shrugging/grimacing for effect, or pantomiming lesbian bar scenes. He’s also a much better guitar player than I expected, often punctuating songs with short, beautiful solos, and incorporating elements of jazz and Latin styles into the songs. The years have been kind to Richman – he looks much younger than his sixty two years, appears to be in good health, and has lost no vocal range. Somewhat surprisingly, his music continues to find a younger audience – twenty-somethings outnumbered greybeards in the crowd by a three to one ratio.
It was a tale of two sets – the first thirty minute sets was one of the most endearing and charming performances I’ve ever seen. With seemingly boundless energy, Richman went from the history lesson on Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer to the hysterical “Let Her Walk into the Darkness.” His was fantastic doing extended gyrations on the crowd sing along “I Was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar.” It should be noted that Richman and long time drummer Tommy Larkins meshed perfectly all evening. After the first set, a lady that had traveled from Austin for the show noted that her face hurt from smiling.
The second set lost some of the energy. While it’s impressive to sing extended songs in Italian and Spanish, it’s also a bit self indulgent. Taking time to explain in English a joke that will be told in Spanish should tell the artist that something is lost in translation. However, he got back on track with the encores. For me, the emotional highlight of the evening was “When We Refuse to Suffer,” a reminder that we can’t experience joy without acknowledging pain. Or, as Richman put it, “let me not numb myself so I may live.” He ended the night with the euphoric “My Baby Love Love Loves Me” with the ever present beaming smile on his face. I agree with his baby, he’s pretty darn lovable.