Published Oct 12, 2018By Jonathan Richman's fourth song, "A Penchant for the Stagnant," he was scanning the Casbah, intent to beam the gleam in his eyes into those of everyone else in the room.
The song, which appeared as a single on his bandcamp page this past March and is now on his new album, SA, is a pointed, philosophical query about our need to have expectations fulfilled by the familiar or the normal, and Richman grinned slyly, as the crowd chuckled at the truism, absorbing a song most of them hadn't heard.
Unencumbered, as usual, by any conventions, Richman and drummer Tommy Larkins stole a chunk of time for us and laid out some choice loot. The room felt unusually dark before nine p.m., when the stage lights suddenly came up to a cheer, revealing a sparse set up: a minimal drum kit to the left, a small mixing console to the rear, and a lone microphone close to the centre. Larkins and Richman bounded out into position and Richman wasted no time, singing the first line of "He Gave Us the Wine to Taste," from 2004's Not So Much to Be Loved.
Sporting a strapless, unplugged Spanish guitar, Richman treated us to wondrous new songs from SA, which the crowd absorbed quietly. Their energy ratcheted up when they recognized 1992's "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar," which prompted sing-alongs and a stylish dance breakdown by Richman before he jingled bells for added percussion.
Modern Lovers fans could be forgiven for whooping for SA's "The Fading of an Old World,' which bears some obvious similarities to 1972's "Old World," but it's something else and for the new world. After this song, and before 2016's "That's All We Need for Our Party," Richman announced that he and Larkins were, unusually, going to play two sets because the sold-out venue was feeling stuffy and they needed a break.
Turns out, he had asked the Casbah staff to turn off the air conditioning because it was too noisy. Richman, who has long mixed every show himself from on-stage, has the sensitive ears of an owl and is able to set every tone and vibe in the room. He is a commander and the people and the building abide.
After the unexpected intermission, Richman led us through a more worldly and multilingual set. There was the earnest Ojibwe of the title track from 2016's Ishkode! Ishkode! He gently sang in Hindi, inspired by the 15th century mystic poet Kabir, for SA's "The Lover's Lane is Very Narrow," and he sang in French for an adaptation of a poem in Farsi by 13th century Persian Sunni Muslim poet Rumi. Before the evening was over, Richman had also sung in Spanish, Italian and English and yeah, it felt like a trip.
Richman's humour was present no matter what, and an interactive version of 2016's "People Are Disgusting" felt particularly festive during this thoughtful and wondrous evening of song, poetry, comedy and progressive thought. It is truly heartening to see an artist gently insist upon making his own way in the world and, in the act, inspire his onlookers to contemplate their own autonomy, all while absorbing the sparse but impactful songs of a true craftsman like Jonathan Richman.