Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER
Jonathan Richman’s shows are a meandering montage from start to finish, what might at first seem like an ill-advised marriage of classical guitar noodling, musings in various languages, vaudevillian song and dance, psychedelic storytelling and outright highly stylized stand-up comedy, with and without musical accompaniment.
There’s no opener, and no encore. His show is short — just over an hour — and performed casually, intimately by Richman and his longtime drummer Tommy Larkins, before the rapt attention of a room of devoted followers. Where many performers seem to struggle to preserve audience attention or to outplay the audible chatter during the interims between their most popular songs, Jonathan Richman doesn’t seem to encounter that problem.
On the contrary, Richman doesn’t even bother with his most popular songs. In fact, he almost seems to want to escape his celebrity altogether, the wild assertions of having begat punk rock, some 40 years ago now, with his best known work — the orphaned demos of a teenage band called The Modern Lovers. He’ll dodge dutifully if politely the requisite requests for the beloved “Roadrunner” in favor of his latest material, this time from Ishkode! Ishkode!, the most recent installment in a prolific solo catalog.
Where so many of his songs feel like rough sketches conceived extemporaneously, it’s almost fair to wonder if Richman’s entire set is a sort of prank, at turns a caricature of what you might expect from a traditional rock and roll show, or an intangibly amorphous, acoustic distillation of the genre’s best offerings. Either way, even as he devotes an appreciable amount of his performance in consideration of life’s challenges — loneliness and alienation, mortality, the value of suffering, adolescent pain or profound sorrow of love lost — you’ll somehow still emerge optimistic, buoyant, having felt as though you were let in on the joke. — JOSH PELTA-HELLER