I had never seen Jonathan Richman play before tonight, but a friend who had deemed him "silly". I only knew of the snappy naivete of his original hits with the Modern Lovers: "Roadrunner" and "Egyptian Reggae". As it happened, he revealed himself at this concert to be a true artist.
He appeared, to roars of acclaim, on a bare stage with a black backcloth and just a microphone stand and a drummer. Extraordinarily for these times, amplification was kept to a minimum. The drummer played imaginatively, sensitively and delicately, as if trying not to disturb an irritable insomniac next door. Every single word that was sung could be clearly heard – and that's important. Jonathan Richman doesn't write many words, so the few he ends up with have to count.
The other surprise was his guitar: small, nylon-strung, played without a plectrum or guitar strap in a quasi-classical/flamenco style. Not very rock'n'roll – or very folk, for that matter – but he squeezed a world of nuance, feeling and stylistic variation out of this unpromising clay. He went from virtual rock'n'roll, through thoughtful folk to European chanson, often replaying a number in a different language or translating the lyrics from French or Italian as he went.
He tackled some common dilemmas of modern life – losing his girl to a junkie boyfriend, refusing to have a mobile phone, and wondering how he came to be dancing in a lesbian bar – and he made them funny and moving in equal parts.
There were some slight irritations. His nerdy dance was amusing the first couple of times, but it felt formulaic after that. And, excellent as the drummer was, his solos did break up the flow. But these were small flaws.
Most affectingly, Richman engineered a cheeky encore, just as the roadies were clearing away the mics and it looked as though it was all over. He reprised "Cellphone Song" with the whole theatre singing a call and response and getting quite rowdy.
As punters screamed out their demands for what was to be the last song of the night, he quietly sang the first line: "As I saw my mother lay lying in the nursing- home bed." People started shushing and within seconds you could have heard a pin drop as he sang movingly and without sentimentality about the last day of his mother's life. You can argue all day about whether naivete can, after 30 years of work, be anything other than a posture, but I found myself believing him. Jonathan Richman seems to have preserved his unique vision of the world, and still wants to tell us about it.
Philip Timms, consultant psychiatrist, London
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