In the lingering twilight of the summer solstice weekend, The Spin sipped and mingled in The Stone Fox's backyard garden, feeling a bit like a denizen of Harper Lee's Maycomb in the collar-wilting heat. As showtime neared, we found a spot inside, cheek to cheek amid the sold-out crowd. The kitchen was closed per Jonathan Richman's request, and the AC was shut off, leaving us to bask in the heat of a couple hundred bodies. Ordinarily, this might have miffed us a bit, but we were willing to play along, as The Spin has never had any qualms with watching a Richman set.
Soon, the lights dimmed from their already mood-enhancing level, and Richman and longtime percussion collaborator Tommy Larkins appeared at a side entrance, greeted by thunderous applause. From the second Richman sang a greeting, we were no longer in a West Side restaurant. He took a quick spin around his half of the stage, Larkins laid down a cool Latin rhythm, and with the first lines of "That Summer Feeling," we were taken straight to a Beat Era nightclub of Richman's imagination.
As Larkins followed every nuance with telepathic grace, Richman remained a body in motion, dancing a perpetual wiry flamenco, moving his guitar around his microphone to change its tone, striking poses like an ancient fresco. Nothing struck us as particularly childlike about this show; sticking mostly to his catalog from the past 10 years, Richman told stories and expounded on philosophical meditations using an adult's elevated language, and occasionally, other languages — Spanish, French and Italian — but never becoming pedantic. Verses were determined by the flow of the narration, not by any mathematical construct. Sometimes they were strung together between choruses, peppered with asides and anecdotes in a range of voices recalling Andy Kaufman or Robin Williams on the standup circuit. During Richman's impressive but tastefully restrained solos, he stared into space, the screens open, channeling instructions from somewhere else.
What really sealed the deal was the total joy pouring out of his performance. Richman's hero, Lou Reed, may be lauded for his cool appraisal of everything he surveys, but Richman's power came from his apparent firm belief in and excitement about everything he sings. As one of several familiar faces we saw put it, "If you don't like what he's doing, you're going to like it by the time he's done." He made eye contact with just about everyone in the room, and commanded us to keep the beat while he and Larkins took turns soloing — it was more crowd participation than ever we've seen at a Richman show, and we've seen our share. Each song flowed into the next like the beads of sweat on the backs of our necks. During "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar," he told the story with his whole body, showing off both the lame dances from the first bar and the liberated moves from the sapphic hangout featured later in the song, all without missing a beat. "You can take photos and do weird shit if you want to," he scolded, "but don't get in the way of your fellow festificants."
After hearing of beauty raw and wild, mystery not of high heels and eye shadow, the glory of the moon, and a museum guard's perspective on the work of Vermeer, the sobering advice of "When We Refuse to Suffer" didn't feel like such a bitter pill. Perfectly in sync with our narrator, we could taste how much the sweet was made sweeter by the sour, despite a personal interjection from some fan who was maybe feeling a little too at home (a shouted reference to Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso," we believe). The mosquito bites, the warm walks home and the occasional fast — these are the things that give us character, Richman told us. With a quick chorus of "Arrivederci, Roma," Richman took his bow and made a beeline for the front door and the warm cloak of the night.