Concert review: Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins, up close and personal at Off Broadway, Wednesday, February 16

Jonathan Richman

Dan Costello

Upon arrival, the red-velvet-curtain-wrapped stage at Off Broadway was nearly bare save for an eclectic drum set up and a couple of microphones. The laid-back audience talked quietly as they stood drinking and catching up with friends and acquaintances. The floor was close to 3/4 full when Jonathan Richman hit the stage at 8:40 p.m. wearing a mustard-colored, button-down Oxford print shirt and sporting short-cropped hair and goatee and ready to entertain.

Finally starting to gray slightly around the edges, Richman, the 59-year-old Massachusetts native now living in San Francisco, brought his unique minimalist music style and verbose lyrics back to St. Louis after a 2 1/2 year break. Currently he is touring behind his new album, O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth, released in November of last year by Neil Young’s Vapor Records.

The audience at Off Broadway varied from longtime fans in their 50s and early 60s to a much younger crowd of 20 and 30 something independent music lovers who came to know his music from his many performances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and the songs included in the 1998 film There’s Something About Mary.

Richman’s sound has matured over the years as the basis for his work has slowly shifted from a strumming 1950s and 1960s rock & roll back beat style to an intimate Spanish fingerpicking guitar style. His extensive touring schedule around the world obviously brings new experiences, sights and sounds to this inquisitive artist. Just as he’s given up his penchant for wearing horizontal striped shirts, Richman’s adoption of an acoustic guitar roughly over a decade ago seems to have similarly shifted his sound in this new direction. The small-bodied acoustic guitar he now plays regularly has replaced the larger hollow body electric models he’d played for years.

The set list, a roughly 1 hour 15 minute set of songs from his new album and his extensive back catalog, included older material like “Let Her Go Into The Darkness” and “I Danced In A Lesbian Bar” to which the crowd helped Richman sing choruses. Highlighting songs from the new album Richman’s set included the Italian-infused “We’ll Be The Noise, We’ll Be The Scandal,” the art-inspired “Sa Voix M’Atisse” and “My Affected Accent.”

Turning to his longtime drummer Tommy Larkins a few songs into the set, Richman had his own take on last night’s performance remarking, “Last night everything was real fast, tonight everything is kinda slow. What are you gonna do?” That statement set the tone for the evening as the intimate surroundings and exceptional sound of Off Broadway offered some great moments during the show. Richman often moved closer to the crowd and let the natural sound of the room and his guitar take over. For years Richman has been using a simple two microphone set up to allow his voice and guitar to be heard through the PA system.

In a 1978 interview with Tony Wilson, Richman explained this tactic of singing without the PA: “Well you see, what that does, is it’s something that happens in the middle of the show I’ll just notice that if the audience is quiet enough sometimes I’ll hear my voice echoing and I’ll know that there’s no need to use a PA and I’ve got a loud voice and I’ll just put it away, you know.” At the end of some songs the audience could have heard a pin drop as Richman played colorful solos on his guitar. A member of the Off Broadway staff told me later that Richman even asked that the ceiling fans be turned off for the performance as to not interfere with the sound.

The musical style may have changed, but his witty stage presence is firmly intact. Never one to simply play and sing, Richman, during more than one song would put down his guitar and grab a percussion instrument like sleigh bells and dance around the stage while Larkins kept the beat of the song going. On other songs he would stop playing, twirl his guitar and dance, shaking his hips in a circular motion.

Although last night’s performance was far removed from his days nearly 40 years ago influencing the punk/new wave movement with the Modern Lovers and the crowd didn’t get to shout “Radio On!” during the latter moments of “Roadrunner,” the audience still appreciated the direction Richman has taken with his music. Richman is constantly learning new things about the world and music and his core audience accepts this desire; always interested in which direction he might take next. Stay tuned to find out.