If you happen to run into Jonathan Richman while grabbing a cup of coffee or walking the streets of Chico—and the odds of that happening, in certain parts of town, are pretty good—just be cool.
Even if he’s carrying a guitar (and he likely is), he’s probably not looking to take your requests. If you’re lucky enough to chat with him, topics like the weather, classical Indian poetry or any music under the sun—other than his own—are bound to go further than gushing and gawking. And keep your camera in your pocket, weirdo, because here he’s just our quirky neighbor Jonathan, not the guy who even your heroes revere as a hero.
But there are times—when he performs locally—that the wall comes down, and we’re free to stop pretending that we’re not awestruck and openly acknowledge that we live in the presence of greatness. This was the case last month, when he played five shows (with his frequent sidekick, drummer Tommy Larkins) in as many days at three local venues: a three-day stint at Duffy’s Tavern (Aug. 20-22) followed by nights at the Blue Room and Pageant theaters (Aug. 23 and 24).
I’ve been lucky enough to catch a handful of his shows over the years. In general, they were more low-key affairs than what I witnessed at the show I caught during this recent run—on his final night at Duffy’s. At previous events, he’s played unamplified (“Amplification is counter-revolutionary,” he once said during a gig in the back parking lot of the much-missed Blackbird bookstore/venue). And with the exception of an extended, Chico-centric version of “That Summer Feeling,” he’s mostly avoided playing any of his universally known (at least among aging rock literati) material at shows I’ve attended. Not to say that’s a bad thing, because in every instance I have been moved and inspired by his performances. But I can see how some nostalgia-hungry fans expecting a hit parade could be confused.
The Duffy’s show, however, was a straight-up rocker, a cavalcade of danceable/lyrical story-songs about this thing called life, delivered with Richman’s golden charm and laid over Larkins’ faultless beats. He sang, played and shimmied around for 51 minutes straight, frequently displaying his singular dance stylings. Watching him groove, it’s hard to believe he’s 72 years old. The smallish crowd, composed mostly of locals, even loosed a collective “awe” of amazement when when he threw a series of high kicks that brought his foot level with his head.
Richman still played an acoustic guitar, though it and his voice were gently microphone-amplified. The set was louder and more playful than I’d seen before—undoubtedly influenced by Larkins’ presence—and even contained two of Richman’s “hits”: rousing renditions of “Pablo Picasso” (which dates all the way back to his Modern Lovers days) and “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar.”
He rarely plays his songs straight, frequently changing tempo, musical styles, languages (this night he alternated between English, Spanish and Italian), and adding spoken asides. He is not one to rest on his older, beloved songs, and is constantly reinventing them, as well as releasing new material on the Blue Arrow Records label and his Bandcamp site (jonathanrichman.bandcamp.com). Some of this newer material rounded out this night’s spectacular set.
One of my favorite moments was when he played a jazzy instrumental snippet of the standard “Strangers in the Night” before launching it into one of these newer songs—a touching and truly homegrown song called “Outside O’Duffy’s” about meeting his wife on the street outside the very location at which he was performing.
Other songs included “Let Her Go into the Darkness” and “The Fading of an Old World” (a significant re-working of the Modern Lovers song, “Old World”). The duo closed out the set with “Cold Pizza”—a metaphorical analogue about accepting and celebrating life as it is rather than as we might imagine it (“It is what it is …,” runs the refrain). Then they returned for an encore, the rollicking “En la Discoteca Reggaeton,” complete with crowd participation clapping and throat-singing.
I wasn’t able to catch either of the theater shows on the tour. I would’ve liked to have seen how the duo adapted to the different spaces/audiences. Referring to the different venues on his Chico mini tour—and referencing the Blue Room’s all-ages status—Richman said they were for “the drinkers, the little stinkers and the thinkers.” They were undoubtedly different than the Duffy’s outing, each completely unique reminders of how blessed we are to have this whimsical, ever-evolving, genius showman among us.