Jonathan Richman at The 5 Spot, 5/13/11

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In a just and righteous world, proto-punk legend Jonathan Richman would be performing his annual Nashville two-night stand at The Ryman. Not that we have any reason to complain. In our own personal, selfish quasi-Bohemia, Richman plays just inches away from our face roughly twice a year at The 5 Spot — as was very much the case Friday night. The Spin walked in from the rain to find ourselves among less than a dozen others just minutes before the show was set to start. If this appeared to concern anyone, it wasn’t Jonathan Richman. Rather, he hopped on the mic like he couldn’t wait to get started, and the stage could barely contain him.

Taking full advantage of the small crowd’s intimacy and the room’s abundant open space, Richman frequently abandoned the stage to roam about the place, giving us a much more interactive version of the show we’ve come to anticipate every year. With a set heavy on tunes from his newest, O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth, Richman paid homage to greats like Johannes Vermeer and Keith Richards, romanticized both love and sorrow with equal sincerity, and lamented his “pretentious” and “bratty” early years in the New York art scene.

As usual, Richman was backed by longtime drummer Tommy Larkins, and their bare-bones setup coupled with a near psychic connection between the two results in stops, starts, extended jams, inserted anecdotes and endless improvisation that ensures a song is never played the same way twice. As if the sparse accompaniment didn’t already spotlight his simple melodies and the greater weight of his lyrics — as lighthearted as they may seem — it’s not uncommon for Richman to abandon singing a verse all together to explain what it means in prose, often to comical effect.

We came back Saturday for round two, where Nashville assured us it wasn’t quite as square as we feared, topping the previous night’s peak attendance from the get-go. What we got was a considerably different show. The previous night’s set was shuffled and reworked almost in its entirety, but this time peppered with a whole lot more hits. Guess it stands to reason that one must have a crowd to necessitate “crowd pleasers." “I was Dancing at a Lesbian Bar” and “My Baby Love Love Loves Me” were instant sing-alongs, and Richman recruited the bigger crowd on several occasions to provide hand-claps and backing vocals. Despite just turning 60 — today, May 16, is his birthday, and some of The Spin's associates allegedly even attended a private party thrown in Richman's honor on Saturday night — honesty, humanity and humor have made this old pro at least seem younger than most people we know.

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