Jonathan Richman Charms The Bowery Ballroom

June 17th, 2009

Jonathan Richman – The Bowery Ballroom – June 16, 2009

Jonathan RichmanJonathan Richman and Vic Chesnutt have been writing music on their own distinct terms—with more than 50 years playing live between them. For as long as they have each been determined to make their unique brand of rock, there has been nothing like it.

Chesnutt, wheelchair-bound his entire career, wills out tortured chords beneath his gravelly Southern voice. A staple of the Athens, Ga., music scene, the solo songwriter has played with legends. Anyone who has spent time with his personal, tragic recordings has seen the light.

Richman came on next and lightened things up a bit. This cult-like figure has been converting fans for the past three decades, so there was standing-room only Tuesday night at the church of The Bowery Ballroom. His songs are funny and deceptively naive. He uses humor to sneak in tough messages, like his song “When We Refuse to Suffer,” which says you can’t complain about your sterile existence if you live in a gated community. In this version, he added lyrics about turning off the venue’s air conditioning because it was affecting the sound. The Bowery complied, of course, and those in the crowd, as it got hotter throughout the night, cheered their own suffering. Richman ended the night with a few songs in French, translating between verses. He’s the only singer I can think of who can get away with singing about true love, ice cream and Vermeer—pure sentiment without a hint of irony.

It’s easy to see the pure charisma that propelled Richman’s entire career. He can charm a packed Bowery Ballroom audience two nights in a row with an acoustic nylon-string guitar, and that’s exactly what he does year after year. Like he says in his song “Nature’s Mosquito,” he’s just going to keep doing what he does. It’s the only thing he was made for. —Jason Dean