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Review: Jonathan Richman at Radio Radio

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Jonathan Richman at Radio Radio


4 stars
Radio Radio, May 10

At one point during Tuesday night's show, Jonathan Richman noted to the audience that he'd said the words "high school" at least three times during the course of the set. He then turned to his long-time drummer Tommy Larkin and asked him "are you over high school yet?" insinuating, of course, that he himself isn't either. While easy to overlook, that question sums up so much about Richman's quirky, intelligent songwriting and the studied awkwardness of his stage-presence.

Despite being 60 years old, Richman appears on stage like a precocious teenager at his first talent show. He is gangling, gawky, questioning, and yet he betrays a deep excitement about the effect he knows he's having on the crowd. Watching Richman is at first like watching that gawky teenager perform: you yourself feel awkward for a few moments, waiting for him to fall on his face, and then you chuckle in spite of yourself when he nails it. That he can still bring-off that kind of self-effacing persona after nearly forty years as a recording musician is a feat unto itself and is part of what makes him such a sneakily charming performer.

Richman held the surprisingly quiet crowd at attention from moment he unassumingly took the stage, opening up with one of his several songs about painters, "No One Was Like Vermeer." Three songs in, he went to the There's Something About Mary well with "Let her Go," in which he delves into flamenco. Continuing the Spanish motif, he moved right into the song "Celestial," but not before giving the audience a key to translating its lyrics.

The crowd loosened up a bit and was actually clapping at the end of his songs by the time he got to a new song, "Bohemia," in which he croons longingly about his younger days walking around Boston's Harvard Square with "pretentious artwork" in his hand, appropriately invoking the "suitcase in my hand" from Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane." Appropriately, because that song turned into a sort of epic tale of Richman's experience as a teenager trying to be cool and stumbling into the girlfriend of the manager of The Velvet Underground.

From that point Richman let go of his affected discomfort to a slight degree and the crowd warmed up, too, rocking to Larkin's big bongo solo on "I Was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar." As the show progressed, Richman increasingly took on the persona of a musical stand-up comedian, working-in little anecdotes about himself and his childhood, and hamming-up his Boston accent to the delight of the crowd, nodding and saying "yah" here and there.

Richman wound down the show with some of his more philosophical songs, such as "When We Refuse to Suffer" (suffah), about the danger of muting one's emotions through drugs ("You can't cheat sorrow and get happiness"). A two-song encore followed, including a funny song dedicated to Keith Richards.

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