The Divine Shows Up: Jonathan Richman

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06/16/2022 – The Wilbur

At an almost-full Wilbur Theater on a tense Thursday night, just as Celtics fans down the road roared  at the tip off in the 2022 NBA finals, an equally enthusiastic crowd saw Jonathan Richman stumble on stage. 

Even at 71 years old, his loose limbs were flying every which way like a growing teenager. Looking everyone in the front row in the eye, he was met by an enormous applause. His boyish grin and bashful charisma shone brightly, immediately removing any distance from him and the audience. 

The stage was as stripped down as it could get. Richman, former frontman of the proto-punk band The Modern Lovers, played his small acoustic guitar strapless to allow for easy guitar spins and intermittent dance breaks, and Tommy Larkins opted for just two congas instead of his regular full drum set. “I never go anywhere without him,” said Richman about Larkins, his regular performance partner, who provided gentle percussive undertones to the set, at times barely stroking the drum heads. In Richman’s guitar and voice, modestly amplified, you could feel every acoustic quirk and hear his calluses dance along the nylon strings. The audience leaned in. 

Equal parts performer, orator, storyteller, philosopher, and musician, he sang, sometimes unexpectedly in Italian, French, Spanish, or Hindi, conversed with the audience, and offered intermittent snippets of wisdom such as “surrender the things of youth gracefully,” without pretension or obliqueness. He went where the spirit took him, and when he felt that spirit compelled him to dance, he threw up his arms and went for it. The audience, people of all different age groups, recognized this pure and honest self expression. Even if some were itching to hear some of his hits, such as “I was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar” or “That Summer Feeling,” they were nonetheless captivated. 

The set opened with “No one was Like Vermeer” and showcased Richman’s jangly but lyrical guitar style and rambling, storytelling singing. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Richman continued the set with a nostalgic homage to the city in “Fenway.” Standing in the heart of Boston at the Wilbur, he delivered the lyrics: “I was born by the Fenway in Beth Israel Hospital / Could that help to explain why I love the Fenway so well / Nowhere do I feel more at home it seems / Than on the Fenway where I dreamed my dreams,” and pierced the hearts of everyone in the audience. His party tunes, such as “I was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar,” were defined by their catchy hooks, rhythmic, aggressive strumming, and Larkins’ undeniable conga grooves. Rather than on-rails pop-tunes, his party numbers are vessels for him to express himself through music, dance, and monologue, fusing silly and sincere. 

His songs, which vary between deep introspections, nostalgic ballads, light social criticism, off-the-cuff spoken word improvisations, and party anthems, managed to maintain a consistent mood throughout when placed next to each other in the set. In his introspective songs, such as “When We Refuse to Suffer,” he encouraged everyone to feel their emotions to their fullest extent when he sang, “When we refuse to feel / Your life becomes a bore / and you’re suffering even more.” He often peppered his songs with philosophical interjections such as “remove the veil of the inner world,” instructing the audience to abandon their petty vanities and egos. In the following song, “Me and Her and the Beach,” a catchy singalong, he demonstrated that abandonment first hand, by suddenly ditching the tune for an unbridled dance break. Infectious and joyful, he embodied the energy of a playful child who didn’t care what the adults in the room thought of him.

Many of the songs were from his most recent album “Want to Visit my Inner House?” whose name is emblematic of the doctrine that Richman brings to his performances, exposing the inner self, demolishing the ego, and inviting the audience into his world. Towards the end of the concert Richman was joined on stage by his wife, Nicole Montalbano, playing tanpura, an Indian drone instrument, which immediately took the atmosphere of the concert in a ruminative, modal direction. The trio performed the title track of the newest album, as well as texts from the 15th century Indian mystic and poet Kabir Das set to music. Leaning more heavily into his philosophical side, he dotted this part of the set with more off the cuff wisdom. “When the ego is there, the divine won’t show up,” he said, as if letting the audience in on a profound secret. He rounded out the concert with “I was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar,” which  brought the crowd to its feet, and ended the night on an achingly introspective note with “I Had To See The Harm I’d Done Before I Could Change.” 

It may be true, as Richman declared, that no one was like Vermeer. But if being unique is a matter of abandoning your ego, allowing your inner “divine” to shine through, and throwing in a healthy dose of guitar wizardry with a dash of comedy and dance, then today, no one is like Jonathan Richman.

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