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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
The Bush Hall, Shepherds Bush, London, March 28th 2009
You see, Serge, the problem with all these reviews and ratings is that sometimes people take them seriously. Take the case of the nice little (I’m not going to tell you exactly what it is, so let’s say, nice little joint), quite possibly near to the Bush Hall. It’s always had a good reputation for its food, but was recently on the receiving end of a five-star review in an unnamed national newspaper. Boy, can’t you tell. At 7.00pm, when normally you might see a few gigsters taking protein before going into action and a few lovestruck couples, refugees from the cruel grasp of Blomfontein Road, it’s packed. And these aren’t your normal Shepherd’s Bush crowd: rather it’s hoity-toity Chiswick types, maybe even a few from Notting Hill. Trader Monthly
To make it worse we’ve got a loud New York banker (OK, I apologise for the tautology) with his joyless partner next to us and who doesn’t seem to have read the newspapers recently. Unaware that he belongs to one of the most despised professions on the planet (and in the UK that’s an understatement) he begins with a moronic interrogation of the menu before launching into a top volume muse on the expensive places he has holidayed in, and the expensive places where he still has to go. Next he catches sight of a colleague in the place and bad mouths him remorselessly, before smiling, waving and shouting across the room “yeah – we must all meet up for drinks”. Finally, he pulls his red-hot Blackberry from his pocket and urgently recites the contents of a just-in email to his companion, which describes the intricacies of the sort of banking deal most would now wish outlawed, and what’s in it for him. Breathtaking, but no doubt the sort of thing that Jonathan Richman would, on a good day, manage to craft a few pointed songs from. Leave the restaurant and go back to the lonely financial zone, I say.
Richman is in London for four nights: Dingwalls, the Borderline, the painfully groovy Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen and tonight, the first of the visit, the pretty little Bush Hall. He’s on stage with a miked-up Spanish guitar, dancing shoes, and drummer Tommy Larkins. He’s not only shorn of his band, the Modern Lovers, but his thick long black locks are gone too. With close-cropped hair, goatee beard, and the intense, quizzical, almost pleading expression with which he engages the audience, he could be a Shakespearian actor making a fairly good fist of Richard II, rather than a rock and roll singer. He’s grown up (he is older than me after all) over the years and his more recent material marks a most reflective and thoughtful view of the world. Not that his childlike, naïve and very often, absurdist, sense of humour has gone, simply it’s now moderated by a distinct and sometimes pungent, whiff of mortality. Jonathan Richman
He’s also gone Iberian in a big way, so much of his new album, ¿A que venimos sino a caer?, (which he helpfully translates for us as ‘What did we come here for but to fall?’ when he sings the title song) is sung in Spanish, and this set is infused with restrained Latin rhythms (very good for the dancing) and flamenco-style guitar. And when it comes to playing, Richman can swap marvellously between his Velvet Underground-inspired punk glory days, sounding as though he’s never played the guitar before, and some wonderfully structured and technically superb phrases and riffs. In one of the best moments of an outstanding performance, Richman stopped dead during ‘In che mondo viviamo’ (i.e. ‘What a world we live in’) to berate Barney the sound-engineer for allowing the noisy air conditioning to be switched on, and with equanimity restored, played a beautiful flamenco riff. His guitar, barely heard by the microphone, soared through the silence. ‘That’ he said, vindicated and defiant, ‘is what this hall was made for’. Cue applause.
This captivating set was nicely balanced between recent and older, reworked material. Songs like ‘You can have a cell ‘phone’ and ‘When we refuse to suffer’ show an impatience with the modern world (he doesn’t have a website and I doubt he has a cell-phone); this somewhat at odds with the sentiment of ‘Road runner’ which he rightly refused to sing despite some requests although I suspect that ‘Cell phone’ might share the same two chords as ‘Road runner’. The tender ‘Le printemps des amoureux est venu’ was sung in a French less accomplished than his Spanish, and like almost every other song afforded an opportunity for Richman to place his guitar gently in its case and dance for us, half break-dancer, half shaman. Jonathan Richman
‘Affected accent’ was a wonderfully humorous look back at schooldays (“In High School I was such a brat I spoke with an accent I didn’t have”) whilst ‘Let her go into the darkness’ was a dark take on a familiar boy-loses-girlfriend subject. ‘Dancing in a lesbian bar’ caused mayhem, and Vermeer got Richman’s treatment, like many artists before him, in ‘No one was like Vermeer’ (“Vermeer was eerie, Vermeer was strange, he had a more modern colour range”). He also sang ‘Pablo Picasso’, whom, you may remember, “was never called an asshole”.
And talking of assholes – why is it that some people just can’t keep their mouths shut at gigs, and are so selfish and rude that they don’t even think for a minute that it might disturb someone else? When the worst offenders were asked, not for the first time, if they could lower their voices, the response was so foul-mouthed and aggressive as to make one wonder what people like this could have been doing at a Jonathan Richman concert, unless it was just to provide a rhyme for Picasso. Don’t they get it – or are they just like our banker dining companion? Well even the prize assholes did in the end, and maybe it was just the strength of Richman’s performance that shut them up as he sang his final song, ‘As my mother lay lying’, his description of watching his mother die. Not many artists would choose to end a show with a song like this, but in Richman’s case it was a tour-de-force that brought a brilliant show to a worthy end. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate) Jonathan Richman
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