[Illustration via EDGEART]
BY JONATHAN VALANIA If Jonathan Richman didn’t already exist, we would have never thought to invent him, which is a testament to both his originality and the shortcomings of our collective imagination. For more than 35 years, Richman has been a tireless advocate of hopeful romanticism, rugged individualism and unyielding optimism, travelling the world like some post-modern Jimmy Stewart with a guitar telling anyone that would listen that, despite all the hard-bitten cynicism that surrounds him, it’s still a wonderful life. He is, in short, the immaculate heart on the dirty sleeve of rock n’ roll.
Performing before a capacity crowd Tuesday night at the First Unitarian Church, Richman was in peak form. Bearded and dressed in a green button down shirt with a crisp white T-shirt peaking out from underneath, Richman had the crowd eating out his hands — clapping in time, singing along, even joining him on stage to dance — all of which, he insisted, would make the evening “more like a party than one of them concerts.”
That Richman can disarm and charm a crowded, darkened church basement with little more than an acoustic guitar and the shuffling beats of longtime drummer Tommy Larkins is a testament to his prodigious powers as a song-and-dance man and the sheer infectiousness of his world view.. Even strong medicine like “When We Refuse To Suffer”, which rails against the modern inclination to chemically numb ourselves against negative emotions and insists that feeling bad is better than feeling nothing at all, tasted like a spoonful of sugar. He gently mocked the pretentiousness of youth with “My Affected Accent” and “Bohemia” and celebrated the magic of adult love in “Hurricane When She Came” and “My Baby Love Love Loves Me.”
He turned each song into a long elliptical vamp punctuated with witty asides, herky-jerky dance moves, snake-charmer guitar and, at one point, he cartwheeled across the stage much to the audience’s delight.
While he mostly focused on newer material — such as the pining “O Moon Queen of the Night On Earth” or the let’s-get-physicality of “These Bodies That Came To Cavort” or the old master homage of “No One Was Like Vermeer” — Richman did, on occasion, dig deep into his back catalog, most notably “Old World” from Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, arguably one of the most auspicious debuts in the history of auspicious debuts. He encored with “I Was Dancing At The Lesbian Bar” which was as mirth-making as the title suggests. Years from now — many years, hopefully — when they write his epitaph, it will say something along the lines of: he left the world a happier place than he found it.