What would you expect from a 67 year old ex-proto-punk frontman playing his acoustic guitar, performing alongside a single soft playing jazz drummer? Although having enjoyed Jonathan Richman’s music for a while now, and having seen videos of his unique performances, I was still skeptical on what I was about to witness. “Jojo” is known for his inimitable stage presence- as his unstructured setlist flows with whichever song he feels in the moment. I can now surely say that Jonathan Richman with Tommy Larkins “on the drums!” concerts are more than a niche performance of a man playing his guitar.
Maxim Ludwig opened for the duo. The solo project and his backing band surprised me with their tight instrumentals and Americana rock vibe. Mostly playing songs off of his solo debut album, Libra-Scorpio Cusp, my favorite song they performed was “Assembly Line.” I often judge opening acts on whether they are able to captivate my attention enough to take my mind off of the headlining band I originally came to see. Maxim Ludwig was able to do this for me, and as they walked off stage, I wished their set time had been a song or two longer.
When it was time for Jonathan and Tommy to take the stage, they approached the drum set and microphone as they were greeted with a roaring and passionate sold out crowd. Throughout the night, Jonathan sang songs in multiple languages, encouraged the audience to participate, went on beautiful tangents about love, life and humanity, and recited poetry between (or even during) songs. Never have I seen an artist with the ability to keep a crowd consistently clapping along through the entirety of two different songs without the audience clapping off beat or fading away after the first verse. The way he is able to feed off of the audience’s energy is unparalleled.
I have never seen a more natural dynamic between two musicians. Having toured with one another for decades, they have perfected their connection with one another. It was as if Tommy could predict the best fitting drum beat to match the next few chords and strumming patterns simply my looking at Jonathan’s hand. When Jonathan stopped halfway through a song to drift into a different song unannounced, or even when he would stop playing completely and go on a tangent, the music was tight and seemed as if it was planned. Every once in a while, Jonathan would say, “‘let’s see what Tommy’s up to on the drums!” and step aside to dance while Tommy took lead in his own drum solo.
One of my favorite moments of the night was when they played the song “People Are Disgusting,” in which Jonathan sings “people are disgusting” and tells the audience to respond with “people are SO disgusting.” He then lists some of the gross tendencies human have, and the messes we leave behind. For example, he sang the lyrics, “have you ever seen a hotel room after what people do to them….oh my god….the maid has to clean this stuff up you know? so leave a tip. because people are disgusting (people are SO disgusting!)” He then stopped that song abruptly because “well, we’ve got to end it somewhere!” to announce that the next song was in Italian, but not to be intimidated if you do not speak the language because it was simply eighteen different ways of saying “it’s a great party.” This is just one example that illustrates the unique ebb and flow of a Jonathan Richman show.
Jonathan has a unique mind, as one can tell by watching him perform. He grants audiences a glimpse at what is going through his head when he interrupts his own songs to tell the audiences stories, poems, or pieces of wisdom. At one point, he went on a tangent during his song “Affection.” In this song, the lyrics include “people all over the world are starving for affection.” He jokingly said, “can you believe I wrote this in the 70’s before cell phones even existed.” He then went on about how mothers will be pushing strollers with their children, while on their phones. This frustrates Jonathan, who is someone who is quite a recluse when it comes to owning technology in his personal life. “Be with your infant, your infant needs you now,” Jonathan ranted into the crowd, as people agreed in a cheer.
A story he told that specifically stuck with me was about when the duo had stopped at a gas station while they were on the road in Texas. He told the audience about this piece of notebook paper that was taped to the wall that said, “Every person you meet is fighting a battle that you know nothing about.” You could tell that this was a very meaningful phrase to him, and I like to think that it summarizes Jonathan’s outlook on humanity. The passionate way he told this story seemed as if he was talking one on one with each member of the audience. He was preaching acceptance in an universally relatable way, which has left my mind to wander back to this story multiple times since hearing it.
One of Jonathan’s more quirky attributes is how he insists that indoor venues turn off the air conditioning while he is performing, so that he can better hear the tone of his guitar. Sadly, in the California summer 95 degree weather, this is not the most comfortable request for the audience. About halfway through his performance, he told the venue’s crew to turn the air conditioning back on so that no one would get hurt. “I don’t want anyone dying or nothing just because I want to hear my guitar a little better…. or do I,” he joked.
Jonathan played one of his most loved songs, “My Baby Love Love Loves Me,” before wrapping up his set. He then played the last song of the night, which he announced to the crowd was from the perspective of a puppy in a no kill animal shelter, “you know, the ones that you’re not sure they’re actually no kill but they swear they are.” He sang both sad and slightly humorous lyrics from the point of this puppy, which was one of the most unique moments of any concert I have been to.
Before walking off stage, Jonathan said that he would recite one last poem. Jokingly, Tommy waved his hand in disinterest and walked off stage. It made me consider why their dynamic worked so well. Jonathan preached love and acceptance of humanity, while Tommy lightheartedly scoffed at him and was simply along for the ride of all of Jonathan’s antics each night. Their connection and understanding of one another, despite their differences of personalities, has made the perfect combination for their performance. Jonathan recited a beautiful poem, about youth of mind and spirit. It was a beautiful and fitting way to conclude and sum up the strange beauty of their performance.
The crowd’s energy was booming as Jonathan walked off of stage. The applause and praise of the audience was just as strong as when he had originally taken the stage at the beginning of the set. Although they normally do not do encores, Jonathan and Tommy had no choice but to walk back on stage to play one more song. They both looked so genuinely thankful for the love the crowd was giving them.
Jonathan Richman with Tommy Larkins on drums was one of the most emotionally honest and thoroughly genuine shows I have been to. The combination of deep analysis of human behavior through Jonathan’s lyrics mixed with his dry humorous banter left me both deep in thought and basking in joy. Although it was my first time seeing him, the experience was incomparable and I highly encourage anyone reading this to go out of your way to see the show next time they come around. I promise you will not regret it.