Live: The Jayhawks Serenade The Back-Slapping Country-Rock Faithful At Webster Hall
Mark Olson, perfectly imperfect. Pics by Nate, more below.
The Jayhawks Webster Hall Thursday, January 20
Better Than: A trip to the Detroit Lakes DMV to get tags for Uncle Brian's Civic, though maybe not an Uncle Tupelo reunion.
So after all these years, here we were -- the 80-percent male, 30-percent divorced, undeniably (if not yet unashamedly) balding Jayhawks loyalists -- as odd-couple Jayhawks bandleaders Mark Olson and Gary Louris picked up their guitars and started in on the ragged, pleasantly dissonant opening chords of "Waiting for the Sun." For the band's faithful, this reunion was a long time coming. The Jayhawks - the real Jayhawks, not the incomplete facsimile that had soldiered on for several records too many under Louris' sole leadership, but the real fucking deal, the unspeakably influential country-rock pioneers - were right there before our eyes. After the better part of two decades, Louris, Olson and a dream lineup (bassist Marc Pearlman, keyboardist Karen Grotberg, and drummer Tim O'Reagan) culled from the band's extensive history commenced a front-to-back recreation of 1992's Hollywood Town Hall, the record that -- argue among yourselves, but we're sticking with this one -- invented alt country as we know it.
And how we hollered. How triumphantly and perhaps a little too forcefully we clapped one another on the back. How we purchased $8 Budweisers without regret.
Everything you might need to know about the band's story, why they were such an amazing group and why they were perfectly destined to self-destruct, was also on full display. Far on stage right: Louris in horn rims, an elder rocker's haircut, and slim jeans, singing high and lonely with a kind of cool and calculated correctness. Far on stage left: Olson in dumpy trousers and a cardigan, looking for all the world like a grizzled algebra professor on his day off. There was Louris, doing his damndest to play the chicken-picked guitar riffs that he recorded 19 years ago, singing harmonies with effortless professionalism; there was Olson, bumbling around and improvising melodies, stomping on the wah-wah pedal he's inexplicably plugged into his acoustic guitar. This dynamic -- sometimes casually brilliant, sometimes endearingly awkward -- defined the generous and occasionally powerful reading of this important band's most important record. So if there were moments, like on Hollywood's co-written "Take Me With You (When You Go)," where the polarity of the band's leaders made an unholy mess of songs that the audience considered sacred, there were plenty more where the exact same thing gave a glimpse of the ineffable magic that defines their partnership. And blame the Buds for our sentimentality, but isn't that the very tension - between the technical challenges of making music, and the unembarrassed recklessness of being moved by it - that endows live performances with the possibility of transcendence?
And so what if it wasn't quite transcendent? After waiting so long for this reunion, at least the performance was cathartic. After the 10 tracks of the recently reissued/remastered/expanded Hollywood dutifully closed with a punchy delivery of "Martin's Song," the band seemed more comfortable working its way through a handful of songs off Tomorrow In The Green Grass (which will be played in its entirety at Webster Hall tonight), Louris-era Jayhawks tunes, and the Tim Hardin-via Rod Stewart "Reason to Believe." It was an animated pair of songs from their yet-untitled album, including a sinister, mid-tempo tune called "Black Eyed Susan," that found the singers' harmonies most passionately intertwined, as if they were bit relieved to shake off the nostalgia trip and get down to the business at hand. So when the reformed Jayhawks LP is issued, all the water under the bridge suggests it might be their best; hopefully it won't take 16 years of patience to see it in person.
Critical Bias: Major. When Hollywood Town Hall came out I actually modeled my wardrobe after the outfits the band wore sitting on the couch in front of the desolate hall in Hollywood Township, Minnesota.
Overheard: ". . . Then what? We'll pop a Viagra and it'll be over." (Wish I was making this up.)
Random Notebook Dump: (Quoting friend) "This is a lot like watching your parents dance."
Set List Waiting for the Sun Crowded in the Wings Clouds Two Angels Take Me with You (When You Go) Sister Cry Settled Down Like Rain Wichita Nevada, California Martin's Song I'd Run Away Warm River Tomorrow In The Green Grass Nothing Left To Borrow There's No Place For People Like Him She Walks In So Many Ways Miss Williams' Guitar Black Eyed Susan Reason To Believe Blue
(encore) Tampa To Tulsa Up Above My Head Lights
Gary Louris, likewise
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