A few years ago, Jonathan Richman was playing… somewhere. As musicians will do. Saskatoon? Winnipeg? Fargo? I can’t remember where and it doesn’t matter anyway. The relevant point is that Mika and I were visiting whatever city it was, and we saw the ad that said he’d be playing there a few days after we were leaving. She was disappointed that we wouldn’t be around to see him. I offered to come back for the show, but knew that it really wasn’t feasible. Wherever it was. So when I heard about this show at the Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon, I grabbed us a pair of tickets.
On the drive up, I had visions of struggling to write this review. Jonathan Richman’s career has spanned nearly 50 years that I know pretty much nothing about. Mika’s played me a few of his most famous songs, and I wasn’t familiar with them. He and drummer Tommy Larkins (who was also at this show) were in There’s Something About Mary, in what I gather were pretty prominent roles, but somehow I’ve never seen it. I pretty much expected this would be guy-with-guitar accompanied by guy-with-drums singing songs I don’t know, which can be quite pleasant, but always leaves me challenged to find something to write about.
And it was that, kind of. But nothing like I was expecting.
Doors at 7:00, show at 8:00. Rush seating, so we didn’t want to be too late, nor did we want to spend a ton of time sitting around. We left as late as we could to give Mika as much homework time as possible, but timing drives is tricky. After an uneventful, podcast-laden road trip, we got to the theatre right at 7:00 – the third and fourth people to arrive. They let us into the theatre and we took our seats – front row centre were available, so why not?
We walked into the theatre past quite a few NO CELLPHONE signs. I took a picture of the drum kit set up on the empty stage and put my phone away – after we spent, like, 45 minutes scrolling through our respective Instagram feeds, showing each other cute animal pictures. It’s become our pre-concert tradition. I should mention that we also walked past a sign that said they’d ask for ID unless you look older than 45. And they didn’t. I took a picture of that too.
More people trickled in; though the place was never that full, the people who were there were devoted fans. And me, I guess. One girl sat by us and got Mika to take her picture in front of the stage. As she reviewed the picture, Richman and Larkins emerged from the back of the theatre and walked the aisle up to the front. Richman passed our new friend and chastised her for illicit cellphone usage. Those signs meant business! He did, however, compliment the vintage tour t-shirt she was proudly wearing.
With no instruments, Richman began singing Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love. Starting a song a capella was something he would do throughout the show. His songs were sweet, often simple, and catchy. He sang of love and human connection and art and wine, with more than you’d expect in Italian and French. Not that I knew enough to expect any.
For “just” guitar and drums (and a bit of simultaneous shaking of maracas and hips), the two had a great sound. Sitting up at the front, I could closely watch Richman’s guitar playing and the guy is an incredible talent. I might go so far as exceptional, just because that’s the kind of skill you have to display for me to notice. Not to be outdone, Larkin easily handled a freeform, no-setlist show and was given several chances to take centre stage. Metaphorically, I mean. You’re not going to move a whole drum kit just for one solo. You understand.
Looking through Richman’s more recent albums, I can tell you he played Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild, Le printemps des amoreux est venu, and He Gave Us the Wine to Taste. A few times, people called out for older songs and they were soundly denied. One person asked for Abominable Snowman in the Supermarket after he’d already said what he was going to play next; he blew off the request saying he was ready to play the other song and couldn’t think of two things at once. A later request for Roadrunner got a longer, very thoughtful explanation as to why he doesn’t play that song anymore, which I will artlessly sum up as “I play what I feel and I haven’t felt that song in 30 years.” He said it better, though, and the crowd heartily applauded his explanation.
They also really liked it when he told off the guy who was using a cellphone. I’ll be honest, when I see “no cellphone” signs, I put my phone away during the show and I say it’s out of respect for the artist’s wishes but really I just don’t want to catch hell in front of everyone.
The night was over relatively quickly, at just under 90 minutes. He left as he entered, walking back up the aisle to the lobby, though he stopped halfway to since one more song a capella in Italian. Or maybe it was Spanish and I just think everything is Italian now?
The show was charming, delightful, and, to this newcomer, curiously different. About as different from “guy-with-guitar accompanied by guy-with-drums singing songs I don’t know” as it could be while still perfectly fitting that description.
There was one fellow there whose behaviour during the show might be best described as unconventional. First he paced back and forth in front of the stage for a few songs. Then he removed his glasses and did it again, seven or eight more times, all while ceaselessly rubbing his hands through his hair. He disappeared for a bit, came back with a beer, and sat on the stairs leading up to the stage. At one point, in the middle of a song, he got up and used the flashlight on his contraband cellphone to examine the artwork painted on the walls of the theatre, an act so out-of-place that Richman thought better than it best to just ignore. Anyway, I guess he liked the show, because a few minutes after Richman was done, just as we were leaving, he hollered “maybe THIS will end war!!!” I guess there’s a chance? I mean, I’d be okay with it. Doesn’t look like we’ve made any progress so far but maybe I have to post this first.