“Blame me, don’t blame them”, said Jonathan Richman about a third of the way into his close to two-hour set last night, “I did it.” Sweat was beginning to prickle the crowd, and the rare funk of grown-ups could no longer be ignored. Jonathan enthusiastically confessed that he’d had the air conditioning turned off in the name of ambiance, something that means a lot to him. “I got a plan when it gets too hot, though, I got a secret plan.” Immediately playing an extended version (with reprise!) of the eternal party starter “I Was Dancing in The Lesbian Bar” did not seem like that good of a plan.
There are various reassuring constants to a Jonathan Richman set. Jonathan will walk to the front of the stage and sing and play guitar unamplified at various junctures. The expressionless Tommy Larkins will hold the line on the skins and the crowd will sing the words. Jonathan will dance extensively, a palette of moves that includes the neck roll, the knee drop, the guitar twirl, the hip swivel, the hair primp, the hand on heart, the en garde, and the graduation photo. He will show no regard for the structure or lyrics of his songs, no matter how sacred. “Girlfriend,” at this point a foundational piece of American rock, ended last night with a cavalier and not massively purposeful note-to-self riff about icicles on a park bench. The sweet recent “Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow” detoured into ancient downtown memories, and it took two dance breaks and a drum solo (“Let’s see what Tommy’s up to right now”) for him to properly describe the exact effect of Chinese lettering in fading red enamel paint over white tile left over from the early ’60s on Canal Street. By the time he did a William F. Buckley impression, plopped into a new tune about the accent he affected as a teenager, he had the crowd in his pocket.
It turned out that Jonathan’s secret plan to trump the lack of air conditioning was to just, er, turn on the air conditioning for a little bit. The perfect temperature materialized during “When We Refuse To Suffer,” a fiercely didactic, almost crotchety tune from his last record about accepting the difficult and unpleasant things in life. The lesson in fake air ended with the song and we were back to sweating like crazy and a tune about a great chick and the virtues of Henri Matisse, all sung in French. Jonathan plays his game loose like no one else, so much so that it can feel like not much is at stake. Then he’ll hit a mark that changes your entire perception of the world for a moment. “This one, for me… I felt the lack of a plan”, he said, reflecting on the show after the third encore. Yeah right.