[23 March 2009]
PopMatters Features Editor
It was the coldest night of the year (something like –25 Celsius) and we were waiting in line outside a Toronto dance club to see an acoustic duo. This was probably a bad idea, but my wife is pregnant and we were determined to get in there and grab a seat. Doors were supposed to open at 8 pm, so we got there at 8 pm. But, seemingly unmoved by the desperate freeze outside, the Mod Club powers were slow to open the doors, and the hundred people who would have happily stood inside drinking beer were left shivering in the dark. There were sniggers of annoyance, comments about the lack of proper rock venues anymore, and lots of exclamations along the lines of, “Jesus, is it cold.”
At about 8:30 pm, Gary Louris came sauntering up through the crowd, past all of our huddled and icy masses, and, as he approached the door and the immovable bouncer, was heard to call out: “Hey, it’s freezing! This is crazy! Let these people in!” And they did. My wife turned and smiled: “Honestly, it seemed impossible to love that man more, and then he went and did that.”
It is hard to resist Louris, a longtime fixture in the alt-country firmament. Setting aside his former band the Jayhawks for a moment, Louris is known to music fans as a key part of the supergroup Golden Smog (with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy), and as collaborator with a wide swath of post-Parsons heroes such as (Toronto’s) The Sadies, Lucinda Williams, the Dixie Chicks, and Nickel Creek. He is a pop songwriter’s pop songwriter, a master of melody and harmony, and possessed of a highly attuned ear for the singable guitar riff. But, no matter how eminent he has been on his own, he has never been as complete as he was during his ten-year collaboration with Mark Olson from 1985 through 1995. Their Jayhawks stand today, along with Uncle Tupelo, as the greatest of the No Depression-era bands. A truly perfect collaborative enterprise, their two-vocalist, two-songwriter approach matched their strengths beautifully, harmonizing them into a dramatic and deeply pleasurable whole. Unlike Uncle Tupelo, whose otherwise analogous duo approach relied on the essential differences between the two core artists, the Jayhawks worked best when they found that sweet spot that united Olson and Louris. The space they created there on that collaborative plain was vast and impressively fruitful.
When Mark Olson quit the band back in 1995 at the moment of their greatest commercial success (following the desert island qualifier Tomorrow the Green Grass), he broke up that alchemy and left Louris with only half of what had been the essential strength of the band. The result was a few very good, but never great, records before the Jayhawks finally gave up the ghost in 2005. For his part, Olson spent the following thirteen years in the wilderness, so to speak, working with his then-wife Victoria Williams on her under-heard music, and performing and recording under the Creekdipper moniker. His post-Jayhawks stuff has been uniformly decent, but in every important way it has been underwhelming. Mostly recorded at his house in Joshua Tree, California, the records were rough and unsatisfying, the vocals odd and even lazy, the lyrics increasingly alienating. When I visited Olson and Williams while on assignment back in 2000, I met their goats, saw their studio (there were mics in the bathroom), and ate some fajitas in their simple kitchen. It was a lovely, earthy, scene. But, Olson appeared to be bitter, caustic—we were there to see if there was a documentary to be made about the two of them and their new life together, but we left certain that his peculiarities wouldn’t be likable on film, and we abandoned the project.
The cliché is so obvious as to seem unutterable. But, here was the Lennon to Louris’ McCartney.
It would seem that the darkness that motivates Olson is the yang to the yinny gorgeousness that drives Louris. Separated, they produce quality one-dimensional material, but together they can create masterpieces of complexity. They merge to provide the full package: Melody, harmony, optimism, and rockstar virtuosity (Louris) combines with mystery, gloom, roughness, and reclusive mysticism (Olson). It is an unstoppable force.
So, the reunion of these two voices, these two songwriting pens, is cause for celebration. The idea of witnessing them together, onstage, armed with nothing beyond acoustic guitars and a harmonica, was frenzy inducing. This is why we waited in line, in our dozens, in the cold.
Olson and Louris emerged to rapturous applause, and looked genuinely excited to be playing for us, playing together. Theirs is a classic acoustic show, a Simon and Garfunkel act that is as dynamic as it is contemplative. The harmonies are magical, the new material impressive on first listen. The room was silent as a church, and exploded into torrents of praise with every final chord. Although they featured many songs off of their new release Ready for the Flood, the audience never seemed to fidget. Of course, they also played a dozen Jayhawks favorites, lifting the energy of the couple hundred happy folks in the room. (A testament to the deep significance of these two pioneers in the alt-country thing, the audience was peppered with local acolytes, including members of the Sadies, Blue Rodeo, Oh Susanna, and the Skydiggers. I took a spin through the back of the room at the midway point and couldn’t help but feel that most of the people swaying in the shadows were folks I’d seen on stage before.)
The two-hour set was delightful, engrossing, and rewarding. Olson, in particular, seemed delighted to be back on a stage and singing these old numbers. At one point, Olson went for a weird, Canada-friendly joke, saying that they had to leave Toronto by 3 am (they were doing Letterman the next afternoon), and that he’d “see you at the Tim Horton’s,” a ubiquitous Canuck coffee and donuts chain. This got him a few stifled laughs, mostly I think because it was such an unnecessarily corny bit of crowd-baiting banter. We didn’t need to be pumped up, to be primed, to be convinced to listen and to enjoy. It’d been almost 15 years since we heard this sound—who wasn’t going to give themselves over?