Jonathan Richman / Vic Chesnutt
The 8x10; Baltimore, MD

Whenever I mention to a friend I am seeing a Jonathan Richman concert, the conversation usually goes something like this:

ME: Hey man. I am going to see Jonathan Richman next month. You want to go?

A FRIEND: Jonathan Richman? Who’s that?

ME: You know, the guy who sang in The Modern Lovers. He has some famous songs, like “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso.”

A FRIEND: (With a shrug) Sorry, dude. I have no idea who you’re talking about.

Then I try Plan B...

ME: I’m pretty sure you know him. Have you seen There’s Something about Mary?

A FRIEND: Yeah, I love that movie. My favorite part is when...

ME: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You remember the guy with the guitar? He’s singing in the tree...

A FRIEND: Oh yeah! I know that guy. You’re seeing him?

And so it goes. I’ve had this conversation probably 15 times in the last week, and they invariably followed the same direction. Why doesn’t anyone know Jonathan Richman? The guy has been part of the music scene since 1976’s classic The Modern Lovers. Sure, among music nerds and record shop owners, Richman’s name is mentioned in the same breath as David Byrne and Lou Reed, but while those two share a revered status in rock’s history, why is Jonathan Richman little more than a cult figure?

Jonathan Richman and his drummer Tommy Larkins took the stage after a great opening set by Vic Chesnutt. One peril about seeing a band in a bar is the noise factor. Chesnutt’s music is meant for a silent theater, a place where his gallows humor and quiet strumming can resonate. But the good folks of Baltimore had a different plan. The noise from the back bar mingled with Chesnutt’s tales of friendship, disease, and the Wheel of Fortune, and threatened to overtake it at times. My friend’s vain plea to “shut the fuck up” quieted the room momentarily, but then the merrymakers resumed talking about whatever was more interesting to them than Chesnutt’s music.

Almost everyone shut up when Richman came on. Dressed in a paisley shirt and black pants, Richman is still slender at 56 years old. His goatee may have some grey flecks to it now, but he treated the audience to an energy-filled set.

The simplicity of the show is what makes it special. While most bands today use a million different machines to go bleep, Richman’s stark stage (consisting of a mic-ed guitar and drum set) was nearly cordless. The duo immediately began the show with the instrumental “Egyptian Reggae,” and the amount of sound coming from a drum kit and a nylon-stringed guitar was amazing.

A definite theme ran through the evening, and Richman’s setup echoed it: eschew technology and get back to the simpler pleasures of life. In a re-tooled version of The Modern Lovers’ “Old World,” Richman bemoaned the destruction of the musty old bookshop to the jaws of Amazon and block stores like Borders, and on “He Gave Us the Wine to Taste It,” he said we get too caught up in analysis rather than simply enjoying what is given us.

A good number of the songs played are from Richman’s upcoming album, Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild. Once again he writes about similar themes: painters (“No One Was Like Vermeer), love (the album’s title track), and anti-technology rants (“When We Refuse to Suffer”). Though some of the songs have a similar slow tempo and lack the edge of his older tunes (though he did turn in a pretty perfunctory version of “Pablo Picasso”), Richman has settled into the role of the troubadour, and these songs feel appropriate to that persona. Also, though Richman’s songs seem deceptively simple and straightforward, watching him live allows one to realize just what a great guitarist he really is.

Being Tommy Larkins must be quite difficult while drumming for Richman. You would never know exactly when he would cease playing guitar to bust out some dance moves, pause to drink, segue into another song, or simply play parts of the same song again after the applause. But that unpredictability is the beauty of a Jonathan Richman show. You never know when he’s going to break out the sleigh bells or sing a favorite tune in a different idiom (Richman demonstrated he is quite skilled in a variety of languages).

After ending the first set with “Give Paris One More Chance,” Richman came back twice more. During one of the most moving moments of the evening, he played the unreleased “Older Girl,” a tale of a frustrated 14-year-old in love with an, um, older girl. The audience picked up the chorus and sang along, and for a moment we all shared the pain of Richman’s protagonist.

Richman came on one last time to deliver an a cappella version of “Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love” in both English and French. In those final moments, as Richman offered the audience nothing but his voice, it became obvious that the mainstream fame that has eluded him for so long was never the objective. It was the love of music, the love for his audiences, that keeps Richman writing and performing so many years later.

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