[15 November 2011]
It’s a comforting old sound: the still-brilliant Mark Olson and Gary Louris harmonies, the good-time rock ‘n’ roll, the slightly scuffed country, the raffishly handsome folk that earns this band so many deserved comparisons to the Flying Burrito Brothers and Buffalo Springfield. There are the wrinkles, tattered edges and cracks that have come with age—the band members are older, of course, all well past their early 90s heyday—but the reformed Jayhawks of 2011 also have the tincture of a long road traveled, something un-fakeable in an era where every bearded strummer with a hint of whiskey in his voice gets hoisted on high and saddled with expectations.
In other words, the Jayhawks sound like the knowing, world-weary veterans they always evoked because, well, they are those guys now: elder statesmen presiding over a legion of front porch rockers, delicate folkies, fuzzed-out alt-country savants and poets of the plains that draw from the same forebears the Jayhawks had but also from the Jayhawks themselves. They’re hardly the broad genre’s only veteran torchbearers; Ryan Adams writes better songs when all of his planets are properly aligned, Wilco turned art damage-suffused alt-country into a blueprint and the Old 97s just friggin’ rock harder. But as the complete package goes—the brilliant musicianship, the soul-cleansing vocals, the lyrics that can veer upbeat to brutal to country-sad to country-funny based on turns of phrase—they don’t have much in the way of peers, and don’t seem ready to fade away, either.
Under a normal trajectory for a not-quite-ever-broken-up beloved rock band, 2011’s Mockingbird Time, the first proper Jayhawks reunion release and the first to feature both Louris and Olson in about 16 years, would usually be the type of decent album longtime fans could prop up with appreciative, if unenthusiastic nods and apologism, merely grateful for the chance to see the Jayhawks as a full-time touring apparatus once more. Instead, it’s a little bit better than that: a smart, sturdy album. Not Hollywood Town Hall smart or Tomorrow the Green Grass sturdy, but the essential elements are there, suggesting that once Louris and Olson get comfortable enough to really nail it, there’ll be great new Jayhawks music again.
The best endorsement for Mockingbird was how easily its tunes slipped into the broader Jayhawks catalog at the Beacon, where the Jayhawks played an encouraging, but truncated show dragged down by a surprisingly sedate crowd and an abrupt, buzz-killing close hustled up to meet a venue curfew.
It started pleasantly and finished as a near-let-down, witha dashed-off a version of the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “I Don’t Want” to tie off a two-song encore barely an hour and 15 minutes into their show. They were really just getting rolling by then, offering hints at the potential for higher-plane Jayhawks in a set that was more polished than the reunion gigs they had played at New York’s Webster Hall ten months earlier.
They pushed determinedly behind newer songs like “She Walks in so Many Ways”, “Tiny Arrows” and “High Water Blues” that offer melancholy, grace, rollick and dynamism, with the snatches of psychedelia that make strong Jayhawks songs well-rounded. They had an assortmentof vintage selections—“Clouds”, “Take Me With You”, “Blue”, “Miss Williams’ Guitar”—and found unexpected highs, such as drummer Tim O’Reagan’s “Tampa to Tulsa”, a gem from 2003’s Rainy Day Music. Their set-closer was the well-worn gospel staple “Up Above My Head”, adding a Jayhawks-ian twist to a song that’s been tackled by everyone from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Al Green to Elvis Presley. Throughout, Louris and Olson had the essentials—the harmonies, the prideful execution—in place, while O’Reagan, bassist Mark Perlman and keyboardist and undersung colorist Karen Grotberg had an easy, no-frills rapport.
But it all just never quite took off, with the band overemphasizing the new material and clinically passing through the old stuff, while trying—and sometimes succeeding—at a coherent, well-paced, confidently stated set. Maybe they just need more time—“more time” in the broader, many-miles-traveled, getting-used-to-each-other-again sense.
Or, maybe it’s just that they were outgunned at their own show. Where the Jayhawks seemed rushed and rarely at ease, opening act Rosanne Cash was resplendent and unhurried, leading a band that earned its climaxes and spread its arms and legs out into the wide expanses of its music, brushing aside sound problems and milking its moment.
Cash, the eldest daughter of country royalty, has made an admirable career out of straddling the country/folk-pop divide, with a near equal balance of graceful C&W and moody folk that mines territory familiar to Melissa Etheridge and Indigo Girls fans. She’s gotten a lot of mileage out of a 2009 album called The List, a collection of interpretations of essential songs Johnny Cash is said to have passed along, and at the Beacon, it was those songs that had the richest flavors, the tastiest finishes and the most resonance, from “Long Black Veil” to Bobbie Gentry’s still-wondrous “Ode to Billie Joe”, performed by Cash in a stripped-down duo with her lead guitarist (and husband) John Leventhal. Whereas the Jayhawks sort of let their set happen, Cash was in tight control, from the drama that oozed from her songs to the fun of collaboration with her bandmates. Louris emerged mid-set for a delicious duet with Cash on her “Seven Year Ache”, and it was some of his most relaxed playing and singing of the evening.
The arc of her set was near-perfect. A dramatic release came during “Girl from the North Country”, which Cash introduced as something Bob Dylan had rendered as an “Elizabethan folk song”, and whose version, in Cash’s hands, was haunting and lonesome—a hypnotic experience that stopped time as Cash peeled back verses, line by line, and let them marinate.
Closing with her own “The Wheel”, the latter third of her set hit emotional pressure points the Jayhawks didn’t find—or didn’t get a chance to find, or haven’t remembered how to hit. Advantage, Cash.