Alt country star moves minor mountains

The Jayhawks | Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
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The Independent Culture

You could argue that record company use of the term "alternative country" is just another marketing tool, but at least it's served to annex rootsy talent from country à la Garth Brooks and Gap ad. Formed in Minneapolis in 1985, the Jayhawks helped pioneer the said genre before it had a name, their sound a rich, scruffed-up amalgam of the Band, Gram Parsons and Neil Young. Their latest album, Smile, might have shed some of those rough edges in search of airplay, but frontman Gary Louris's life-rich aperçus and to-die-for vocals make a mockery of any claims that they have sold-out.

You could argue that record company use of the term "alternative country" is just another marketing tool, but at least it's served to annex rootsy talent from country à la Garth Brooks and Gap ad. Formed in Minneapolis in 1985, the Jayhawks helped pioneer the said genre before it had a name, their sound a rich, scruffed-up amalgam of the Band, Gram Parsons and Neil Young. Their latest album, Smile, might have shed some of those rough edges in search of airplay, but frontman Gary Louris's life-rich aperçus and to-die-for vocals make a mockery of any claims that they have sold-out.

Naturally, tonight's audience were mostly thirtysomethings. No tongue-studs or crop-tops in the audience, just faded Levis and worries about the baby-sitter's credentials. Had we had access to a collective speech-bubble it might have read "yes, we have the beginnings of middle-age spread, but we still know what good music is". When Louris took the stage in a white shirt, white jeans and white shoes, it was clear that he was a baby-boomer, too. We bonded immediately.

Much of the Jayhawks' magic stems from their astute use of vocal harmony. Like the Eagles' Don Henley or the Band's Levon Helm, the Jayhawks Tim O'Reagan is a drummer who can handle a lead vocal, and though new-recruit Jen Gunderman's voice isn't quite as powerful as that of her predecessor, Karen Grotberg, she, too, knows her way around a three-part harmony. When they pooled their talents with Louris's on "What Led Me To This Town?", the chorus soared to stunning effect.

The Jayhawks' 1997 album Sound of Lies was largely coloured by Louris's divorce from his first wife. Now remarried with a young son, he's said that Smile documents an attempt to let go of the past and move forward. For a while tonight, it seemed that jettisoning the emotionally-raw Sound of Lies material was part of that process, but then came the piano intro of "The Man Who Loved Life". Melodically, it's a small masterpiece; lyrically, it's simple but arresting. Louris fully-inhabited the lead-vocal, and his electric guitar solo - all feel, spasms and hunches - paid clear homage to the Neil Young approach. Save for their 1994 single "Blue" - perhaps one of the best folk songs of that decade - this was the evening's stand-out.

The encores were well-deserved and gratefully given, the waltz-time ballads "Sound of Lies" and "Stick in the Mud" gently segueing to "Big Star", its "I'm gonna be a big star, some day" line seemingly a statement of intent. I've a feeling that Gary Louris knows as well as I do that mega-fame is increasingly unlikely for the Jayhawks, and this partly because he doesn't have the commensurate, king-sized ego. Perhaps being a songwriter capable of moving mountains at least twice per album will suffice for him.

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