At the end of last night's Jonathan Richman show at the Bowery Ballroom, an unexpected thing happened. After graciously giving two encores, Jonathan put his guitar away, started for the exit, and then came back to the mic. He explained that something didn't feel right to him...that the show had had a lot of ups and downs, but it hadn't felt good to him, somehow.
"We don't play with any kind of plan," he explained (speaking for himself and drummer Tommy Larkins, though clearly he's the only one onstage calling the shots). "And tonight I was really feeling the lack of a plan. We try to keep things fresh...it's like bread: as soon as you take it out of the oven, it starts to get old." (I'm paraphrasing) "But I would rather fail like that than play the same stale thing every night."
Anyone who's ever gotten on a stage knows what it's like to have a bad night...to not be connected to the music, or the audience, or oneself. It happens, and it doesn't feel good. But witnessing Jonathan Richman's palpable sense of confusion and unrest for not (in his mind) delivering the goods, to see him offer himself up like that in front of a packed house, was really something. One fan suggested he solve the problem by singing his song "Springtime in New York," and yes, he said, that might very well be just the thing.
He called Tommy back to the stage, unpacked his guitar, and performed the song with tenderness and real love for the audience and for the city, and all was well once again in the world.
This guy is amazing. I've had the pleasure to catch him four times in the last three years, and at each show have been completely floored by the intimacy he creates with the audience, by the spontaneity of his performance (the guitar flights of fancy, the lyric ad libs, the off-mic bits, the dancing!..he's out of his mind and isn't it great), by his total engagement in offering service to the crowd in the form of light, humor, warmth, gentleness and wisdom. Sure, I could tell he was a little off his game last night. He started strong, but seemed to become preoccupied with his decision to instruct the venue to keep the A/C off. As it got warmer in the room, he began to worry about the audience's comfort, asking us if we were too warm, even as one of his songs railed against things like A/C and new housing developments and things that keep us from "the real" of life. He seemed to get confused, torn between following the dictates of his conscience and his concern for the audience, and the show took a noticeable energy dive from there on in. Or maybe it was the decidedly un-Jonathan Richman-like song he sang about being a victim to other people's unkindness and cruelty (I don't the name of it, but my guess is that it was a cover of a Vic Chestnutt song, who opened the show).
Whatever the reason, JR lost his groove about halfway through, and struggled mightily to regain his balance. Seeing this guy, in his late 50's, veteran of thousands of concerts, care so deeply about trying to find his way back into the moment, was a real gift. Hearing his conviction that he'd rather fail in his dedication to the moment than be another nail in the coffin of true, live performance and risk and humanity, confirms for me -- once again -- that Jonathan Richman is a modern-day hero.
Go see him if, and as often as, you can. Tour dates are here.