Jonathan Richman/Vic Chesnutt; March 13, 2008; Orpheum Stage Door Theater
I first fell in love with Jonathan Richman after seeing him singing in a tree in the raunchy but hilarious “Something about Mary.” I had known the name for years, but it wasn’t until that moment that I witnessed the charm of his live performance. Since then I have seen him a number of times, most notably a pair of shows in Germany during my first trip to Europe, and he never fails to entertain. His perennial sad sack demeanor belies his hopeful view on love and happiness.
There seems to be no shortage of things that make him happy. “Springtime in New York” is one of those things. A listing of everything that make the city special, including its flaws, the song has been part of the set list at every show that I can remember. The same is true of “Give Paris One More Chance,” which he prefaced this time with the story of how he didn’t like the city on his first visit, but he took his own advice and now it is one of his favorite places to visit. He also included a long-winded story about a prescient dream he had before that first trip, a story which didn’t really seem to go anywhere in particular. In fact several parts of his set seemed a little confused. There were definitely verses missing from the audience sing-a-long favorite “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar,” while some songs seemed made up right then. Other times he seemed to forget the words to songs, calling on his drummer Tommy Larkins to fill in the space with a drum solo.
Tommy has been his drummer for as long as I can remember- he even joined him in the tree in the movie. He has switched from his stand-up kit to a sit-down version since I last saw him; I’m guessing the better to see Jonathan with. He seems to have learned to keep up with Richman’s unpredictability by never letting him out of his sight. One never knows when Jonathan will put down his guitar to execute a series of signature dance moves (perfectly imitated by Nick Luca and band in my basement during their cover of “Lesbian Bar”). He ended his set without an encore, coming back only to thank us again and explain that his doctor told him not to talk too much after his shows lest he have a relapse of the vocal chord problems he had before.
Vic Chesnutt was the opener the last time Jonathan and Tommy came to town, and he seems to have gotten even smaller since then. Watching Chesnutt is always a slightly uncomfortable experience. Confined to a wheelchair since a car accident many years ago left him paralyzed from the waist down, Chesnutt still tours frequently and he does seem to enjoy this particular bill. The pessimist to Jonathan’s eternal optimist he takes every opportunity to poke fun at him. In a song that seemed even more made up on the spot than any from the headliner, he called him “his songwriting idol” and claimed that while Jonathan may smell urine in an alley and “thank the world for showing him that,” he says “get those molecules out of my nose.” In fact the only song that actually seemed premeditated and not one of the “chopping broccoli” type was one that was written for the band Brut, a collaboration with another band. A series of parallel verses about your “gray-haired granny,” “your morally challenged sister” and other amusing relatives who hail from a variety of places in the south, the amusing though slightly offensive tune was the highlight of his set.
While both were undeniably entertaining, every couple years is about as often as I need to see them.