Last night: Jonathan Richman at Lion's Lair

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Jonathan Richman
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Lion's Lair
Better than:
Seeing an energetic and earnest singer/songwriter play at the Bluebird or the Fillmore.

It seemed perfectly appropriate that Jonathan Richman opted to perform in the cramped confines of the Lion's Lair. The bar's small scope and understated feel served as a perfect complement to Richman's immediate and intimate style, an approach that depends largely on engaging an audience with contagious energy and minimal instrumentation. On Wednesday, the forum truly fit the performer.Throughout the hour-plus set of catchy pop song structures and stream-of-consciousness, brainy lyrics, Richman and his longtime drummer Tommy Larkins had no problems eliciting enthusiasm from the capacity crowd.

Indeed, it's difficult to imagine such communal encouragement and sustained interest taking place at a larger theater. More importantly, perhaps, a larger stage would surely have subtracted from Richman's inimitable stage presence. The founder of the Modern Lovers took full advantage of the small Lion's Lair stage, constantly moving away from his two microphones to sing directly and unamplified to the nearby crowd. Richman found several occasions to temporarily lay aside his guitar in order to take a cowbell solo, a stint on the shaker or just an impassioned dance break.With his eyebrows arched high and his piercing gaze aimed directly at the audience members, Richman seemed on the brink of some kind of emotional breakdown during the entire performance.

The effect of Richman's theatrics and his intensity were as contagious as they were affecting. The sound was simple and the instrumentation understated, but the two performers filled the room with their instrumentation. The audience also kept up a respectful amount of silence during the slower songs and clapped along during the more energetic numbers. The crowd likewise stayed fully engaged during songs that alternated in tone and topic between the ridiculous and the forthright. Richman's pleading, insistent tenor voice and his earnest, searching facial expression elicited encouraging responses during songs like "You Must Ask the Heart," which deals with fairly straightforward matters of love and heartache, and tunes like "I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar" and "In High School I was Such a Brat," which incorporate a degree of Dadaistic ridiculousness. Lyrics that casually referenced William F. Buckley got as considerable a response from the crowd as songs about "the springtime of love," rendered in both French in English.

Even Richman's forays into foreign languages and interpretive dances failed to loosen the rapt attention of the crowd, who cheered for the words they did not understand and hooted during the dance breaks. The effect would surely have been lost in a more spacious and more anonymous venue. Songs like "Let Her Go Into the Darkness," "Time Has Been Going By" and "Celestial Es Como El Pan" and "Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild" benefited from Richman's direct input with the crowd. In between verses, Richman would address the audience directly, riffing on a theme and offering observations or anecdotes. What's more, the pair's instrumental approach also seemed ideally suited for a smaller space. Richman's flamenco strumming style and elaborate solos rooted in bar chords played on a nylon string guitar fit the scope of the space, as did Larkins' small jazz drum kit.

Overall, the intimate dynamic helped spotlight an element of Richman's musical persona that is not immediately evident on his albums or even in his film appearances. For the simplicity of his live setup and for the basic structures of his songs, Richman offers an honesty and warmth that's impossible to deny. It's a quality that's even more evident in the packed confines of a dive bar off East Colfax Avenue, where Richman is staring and singing right at you.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: The song I most wanted to hear, "Let Her Go Into the Darkness," was the second song on Richman's set list. Having a favorite tune played so early in a show helped to immediately involve me in performance.
Random Detail: Richman avoided early Modern Lovers song, despite requests shouted from the audience. He addressed the omission directly during a tune, stating "the past should not encumber us - that's why I don't do your requests."
By the Way: The show lasted less than two hours, but Richman and Larkins performed three encores.

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