Jonathan Richman is known to be reliably uplifting in concert.
That said, the second time I saw Richman perform was both similar and dissimilar to the first time. Less than a year apart, both in New York City. First was at Town Hall; now at The Knitting Factory on 24 June 2003.
The set-lists were virtually the same, as was the minimalist stage dressing—just Richman, his guitar, drummer Tommy Larkins and a pared down drum kit.
But whereas Town Hall had been a spiffed up formal, the Knitting Factory was a let-your-hair down keg party. The Town Hall’s three-piece suit clean shave gave way to the Knitting Factory’s white T-shift, jeans and a goatee; and Richman looked as comfortable in both.
Richman’s demeanor changed accordingly too. Surprisingly, I (slightly) preferred him on the Town Hall stage, performing as a serious (or at least historically important) artist deserving to be studied and appreciated, as opposed to the socks-knockin’ rocker at the Knitting Factory. Miraculously, he lifts spirits equally as well in both settings, and as hot ‘n’ humid as the Knitting Factory was, you somehow felt refreshed and rejuvenated after seeing him play. Richman renewed your faith in humanity and relief that there are people out there like him—geeky, honest, vulnerable underdogs with a sophisticated wit who can tell us things about themselves and ourselves at the very same time.
The Knitting Factory performance relied slightly more on Richman’s frequent meandering detours down the back alleys of Madrid, Paris, or Firenze—he moves between the languages as handily as he does between guitar chords (he’s classically trained, and plays Flamenco beautifully). Even if one cannot decipher the lyrics, you still instantly relate as Richman is such an excellent musician that he can conjure emotions and tell stories with his music, posture and delivery alone.
While performing, Jonathan enjoys dancing impromptu little numbers as interludes to songs; often with his guitar slung over his shoulder like a mariachi matador. The Knitting Factory produced a veritable dancing machine this night, as Richman marched through tunes from all different periods of his historic career. From his early ‘70s punk childhood with the seminal Boston band The Modern Lovers, through his pop and folk careenings, and finally to his multilingual emotive musical story-telling, Richman’s songs always hit the heart somehow, even the comedic musings (mostly from his early recordings) that espouse the adventures of Dodge Veg-O-Matics, Abominable Snowmen, and the Ice Cream Man.
Richman’s fans are as fervent as KISS fans and as nice as your grandma, and that’s saying something. Indeed, I saw a middle-aged man standing behind a speaker column the entire show—dancing, pointing, shaking, lost in the music—and from his vantage point he could never have even seen Richman’s face.
A pity too, as no one can light up a room with a smile quite like Richman. Listen up, marketing men: forget the original yellow smiley face; put Richman’s grinning mug on a T-shirt and bestow happiness upon hundreds whose path it crosses; even those that don’t recognize him as the minstrel troubadour from There’s Something About Mary. His wide-eyed goofiness endears because it is tempered by good-humored irony and an understanding of people that allow him to discuss moments and emotions that are universal but usually kept private (even from ourselves sometimes). At one point he sings “I didn’t need to be loved; I needed to love,” and the audience is for a moment hushed in empathy.
I’d be remiss not to cite a personal epiphany I had at the concert. The day of the show was the first day of sweltering summer heat in New York—a big moment for a city that’s been hibernating far too long and is just now starting to thaw. The long winter is over with an exclamation point; and here comes the sweat and the stickiness all compressed inside the Knitting Factory.
Richman lives life in the moment, always as both a keen observer and eager participant, so naturally he saw fit to comment on our predicament inside the sauna. But instead of complaining (never), he, out celebrated of our humid cramped quarters, first in spoken word and then in song.
He remarked that, with the heat comes the smells of this city. And we should rejoice in these precious acrid stenches because they remind us we’re still alive and kicking. And I had been thinking precisely the same thought just hours before when I left my apartment to go to the show. Exact same thought. Spot On.
Further adding to my Time Life moment, Richman’s stated reference point for this musing was an alley called Minetta Lane nestled deep in Greenwich Village—the very street on which I live and on which I’d been standing when I shared the same thought. Vague relation gave way to spooky deja vu absolute understanding. But before I can bask in the moment’s grandeur (or in the smells of the Factory), Richman’s on to the next number, this one sung in Italian . . .