Jonathan Richman, live at Middle East upstairs, February 18. 2010
The closing show of Jonathan Richman's three-night stand at the Middle East upstairs hit an early peak on the second song. "My Baby Love Love Loves Me" (from 2004's Not So Much To Be Loved As To Love) smothered the audience with the intensely romantic side of his persona. Hitting every mark — from yearning Sam Cooke–like intonations to agonized stares — Richman worked the song like a seasoned Casanova. "My Baby Love Love Loves Me" flowed from the still-beating heart of pure rock and roll.
Throughout Thursday night's show, Richman (who plays only with drummer Tommy Larkins) was doing it all. To create the nuance of a guitar break, he pulled away from the microphone and strummed the neck with the fat of his thumb. For a solo, he plucked while dancing over chords. To emulate the rumble of a classic ending, he flailed his fingers cannily across the soundhole. Whether you were a fiftysomething from his old Boston days or a 20-year-old who'd gotten into him via Jens Lekman, these were the goods.
He entertained us with self-ridiculing, mid-song psychodramas (in "Celestial": "It wasn't me. It was all her fault!") and enough topical content ("Vermeer") to create space for his supremely romantic songs. "Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow" and "Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild" were paeans to the older woman — and never mind conventional standards of beauty. In "The World Is Showing Its Hand," he asked us to consider whether the smells of diesel fuel, the pungent Mediterranean, and beer and piss in alleys don't boast their own special magic.
Yet like a boxer in the 12th round, or a chess master approaching the time control, he found his concentration faltering as the night went on. He asked for the crowd to make noise, sing, and clap along. By the time he had gotten through his Afrofunk-flavored "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar" (and he danced pretty damn well), his persona had mutated from mischievously sweet uncle to hyperactive kid. From there on, it was dazed-candy-man time. The improvisations that had served him so well early turned into an overexposed mess. His eyes froze as he plodded through a sequence of newer, unfinished songs about such un-Jonathan things as hurricanes, formaldehyde, and bodies. There was not much warmth left when he stumbled through only two verses of one of his greatest songs, "That Summer Feeling."
Unlike artists who rely on crowd favorites (and he has many), Richman is always going to put himself out on that ledge. His work continues to be a fascinating dichotomy of great meanings and great trivialities.
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