Jonathan Richman, Academy 2, Birmingham
Tuesday 20 April 2004
Richman is best described as a naive minstrel, travelling with less and less as the decades roll past. The last few tours have found him accompanied only by drummer Tommy Larkins, wielding a battered acoustic guitar, refusing to be plugged-in and just brandishing his instrument in the general direction of a microphone stand.
In the early Modern Lovers years, the Velvet Underground shone as Richman's guiding light, but by the late 1970s, he had developed a unique style. Since then, Jonathan has not changed much, although he now seems faintly more devilish, slightly more worldly-wise.
Richman has always looked about 10 years younger than his actual age, so now he's just into his sprightly forties, in jeans and T-shirt, still trim and sporting a goatee. His mind, fortunately, retains its childlike wonder at the simple things in life, and this is a stance that Jonathan also adopts towards the complex things in life. For many years, we've wondered whether he's really so awe-struck by sheer existence, or whether he's always being slyly ironic. Ultimately, Richman is probably enjoying it on both levels at once. A significant change is his bodily liberation. Jonathan frequently dances over to the side of the stage while Larkins bashes out a rickety drum solo. A variety of mostly Latinised beats prompt various Pee Wee Herman-style hip-shakes and arm rotations. Richman also likes to twirl his guitar in circles, stopping the strumming to call out his verses.
His guitar style is close to that of Willie Nelson, full of emphatic phrases that are struck or scribbled with fluent yet interrupted grace. He avoids predictable constructions and has a markedly personal signature. The other evolutionary development is Richman's interest in multilingual delivery. Ten years ago, he sang a whole album in Spanish, but tonight he's also turning out songs in French and Italian. This is so non-USA. But Jonathan also exudes pure Americana, even if it frequently slips down south of the border. He does not mind playing the oldies, with "Pablo Picasso" slipped in at the start, followed up by a goose-pimpling "Vincent Van Gogh".
Richman transforms "Give Paris One More Chance" into a recounting of a dream he had when he was 17, an extended tale that garners a crowd singalong. Other songs prove more directly comedic, although "You Can't Talk to the Dude" and "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar" have morose undercurrents. At least "Egyptian Reggae" is uncomplicatedly happy. For his encore, Jonathan delivers an a capella version of "Walter Johnson", his paean to a childhood baseball hero.
The audience radiated genuine love during this intimate encounter. Richman inhabits the whole venue-space, silencing the audience, singing and playing off-mike as he seren-ades quietly. This looks set to be the year's most profound low-amplification experience.
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