Jonathan Richman @ Union Transfer

WRITTEN BY: Max Klemmer

Sunday, February 25, was a very special night in Philadelphia as Jonathan Richman sang, danced, and educated to a packed audience at Union Transfer.

Jonathan Richman (or “Jojo” to some fans) has been making music since the 1970s, when he got his start with the proto-punk band the Modern Lovers in Boston, Massachusetts.  The band only released one album, which has become vastly influential.  Jonathan Richman then moved from this electric punk rock sound to playing much quieter music with acoustic instruments.  Through his music, Richman comes off as almost childlike, focusing on nostalgia (“That Summer Feeling”), love (“When I Say Wife”), and his own personal fascinations (“Walter Johnson”).  He is a highly independent artist, singing about all of the specific things that interest him, like art history (“No One Was Like Vermeer,” “Pablo Picasso,” “Salvador Dali”), poetry (“He Gave Us the Wine to Taste”), and songs of other languages (“Es Como El Pan”).  The man has no cell phone, computer, or television.  He barely tolerates photographers at his shows.  He cares very much about the human, the real, and the natural parts of the world.

Richman is famous for re-making his songs after he writes them, and singing different verses than the recorded versions so I knew going in that I likely would not be able to sing along with every song.  Unfortunately, he also has so many songs in his repertoire that I barely even knew many of the songs he played, as I had not listened to much of his recent discography.  The man puts on a good enough show that I enjoyed it just as much as I would have if he had played more songs I was familiar with.

I arrived early and was in fact the first person in the venue.  It was fairly sparsely populated until Richman went on.  The opener, Ané Diaz, a Venezuelan ukuleleist performed Venezuelan folk songs with a guitarist and a percussionist.  The songs were beautiful and short.  Though they were in Spanish, they still seemed to resonate with much of the audience.  They only played for about 20 minutes, and not too long after they were off stage, Jonathan Richman and his drummer, Tommy Larkins emerged.

By this time the venue was packed and Richman whisked us away into his world.  The stage was almost bare, with Tommy Larkins’ drum kit up front, taking up the most space.  Aside from this, only some sound equipment, mics, maracas, some bells, and Richman’s water bottle lay on stage.

The duo launched right into the set, playing bouncing around musically, switching from song to  song, including the Modern Lovers’ “Egyptian Reggae” before stopping and talking to the audience.  Richman’s performance was highly embellished, with singing that felt spontaneous, and often he would spring away from his mic stand and dance while Larkins continued playing.

The largely recent song selection featured songs from the last decade, like “Woah! How Different We All Are,” “No One Was Like Vermeer,” “Penchant for the Stagnant,” and “These Bodies That Came to Cavort.”  “No One Was Like Vermeer” was a particularly fun song, featuring a monologue about how Vermeer’s daughter actually painted many of his famous paintings.  One of the many middle-aged men at the show standing next to me was elated to shout “No one was like Vermeer!” in the song’s chorus.

Richman performed songs in Italian and French and even performed some poetry, including “He Gave Us the Wine to Taste” by the Sufi poet, Rumi, which he turned into a song.  Those who showed up expecting him to play his past hits, only got to hear the Modern Lovers’ “Egyptian Reggae” and “Old World,” plus his famous romp, “I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar.”  There was no disappointment in the performance however, Richman was as lively as he could be and his newer material surely got some new listens after that.

The general dynamic between Richman and Larkins was that Larkins’ job was mainly to keep up with Richman’s erratic switches and keep the song going when the singer decided to dance rather than play.  Larkins hardly uttered a word the entire night, but their musical chemistry was superb.

Throughout the night Richman let the audience in on his own personal philosophies, including,allowing everyone at the party (and he means everyone), his aversions to technology, and his need to socialize.  Richman is his own person, he doesn’t need to rest on his laurels and only play his old hits.  He’s a true artist and entertainer and continues to pursue his art even in his senior years.  

Wearing a striped shirt almost identical to the one on the cover of his album, I, Jonathan, Richman maintains a sense of childlike wonder about him even at 66 years.  After closing the show reciting some poetry, Richman thanked to audience with the most sincere look I have ever seen on a performer’s face.  The all ages crowd got a show for the ages and hopefully thought about life a little differently afterwards.