If He Were a Richman
In the lingering twilight of the summer solstice weekend, The Spin sipped and mingled in The Stone Fox's backyard garden, feeling a bit like a denizen of Harper Lee's Maycomb in the collar-wilting heat. As showtime neared, we found a spot inside, cheek to cheek amid the sold-out crowd. The kitchen was closed per Jonathan Richman's request, and the AC was shut off, leaving us to bask in the heat of a couple hundred bodies. Ordinarily, this might have miffed us a bit, but we were willing to play along, as The Spin has never had any qualms about watching a Richman set.
Soon, the lights dimmed from their already mood-enhancing level, and Richman and longtime percussion collaborator Tommy Larkins appeared at a side entrance, greeted by thunderous applause. From the second Richman sang a greeting, we were no longer in a West Nashville restaurant. He took a quick spin around his half of the stage, Larkins laid down a cool Latin rhythm, and with the first lines of "That Summer Feeling," we were taken straight to a Beat Era nightclub of Richman's imagination.
As Larkins followed every nuance with telepathic grace, Richman remained a body in motion, dancing a perpetual wiry flamenco, moving his guitar around his microphone to change its tone, striking poses like an ancient fresco. Nothing struck us as particularly childlike about this show; sticking mostly to his catalog from the past 10 years, Richman told stories and expounded on philosophical meditations using an adult's elevated language, and occasionally, other languages — Spanish, French and Italian — but never becoming pedantic. Verses were determined by the flow of the narration, not by any mathematical construct. Sometimes they were strung together between choruses, peppered with asides and anecdotes in a range of voices recalling Andy Kaufman or Robin Williams on the standup circuit. During Richman's impressive but tastefully restrained solos, he stared into space, the screens open, channeling instructions from somewhere else.
What really sealed the deal was the total joy pouring out of his performance. Richman's hero, Lou Reed, may be lauded for his cool appraisal of everything he surveys, but Richman's power came from his apparent firm belief in and excitement about everything he sings. As one of several familiar faces we saw put it, "If you don't like what he's doing, you're going to like it by the time he's done." He made eye contact with just about everyone in the room, and commanded us to keep the beat while he and Larkins took turns soloing — it was more crowd participation than we've ever seen at a Richman show, and we've seen our share. Each song flowed into the next like the beads of sweat on the backs of our necks. During "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar," he told the story with his whole body, showing off both the lame dances from the first bar and the liberated moves from the sapphic hangout featured later in the song, all without missing a beat. "You can take photos and do weird shit if you want to," he scolded, "but don't get in the way of your fellow festificants."
After hearing of beauty raw and wild, mystery not of high heels and eye shadow, the glory of the moon, and a museum guard's perspective on the work of Vermeer, the sobering advice of "When We Refuse to Suffer" didn't feel like such a bitter pill. Perfectly in sync with our narrator, we could taste how much the sweet was made sweeter by the sour, despite a personal interjection from some fan who was maybe feeling a little too at home (a shouted reference to Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso," we believe). The mosquito bites, the warm walks home and the occasional fast — these are the things that give us character, Richman told us. With a quick chorus of "Arrivederci, Roma," Richman took his bow and made a beeline for the front door and the warm cloak of the night.
Cronin It In
Having just attended our second sold-out event at The Stone Fox in as many nights, The Spin feels comfortable officially decreeing the Fox a bona fide hotspot — granted, with the AC in full effect, Monday night's hoedown was way more chill than Jonathan Richman's appearance the night prior.
Actually, the clamor of openers Weekend Babes was at times indistinguishable from a rattling air conditioner — or rather, several thousand of them. Though we felt the presence of the young rock 'n' rollers, the intricacies were tough to discern through the cacophony, even with an unmistakable groove lurking beneath. Occasionally a method bubbled up from the madness long enough for the band to lock into an old-fashioned psych-punk groove.
The members of The Paperhead clearly share the Babes' affinity for vintage, acid-damaged psych pop, but they harness their enthusiasm with far more patience. Cooling their jets with the addition of a jazzy organist as well as occasional mid-tempo jam-outs, the youngsters played new material and once again proved wise beyond their years. The Paperhead's precocious and druggy style of pop is seemingly free of any contemporary contamination.
It's been a few years since The Spin caught Oakland, Ca.'s Shannon and the Clams — last we saw, they were opening for Hunx and His Punx at The End on Record Store Day 2011. Co-lead singers Shannon Shaw and Cody Blanchard swapped up their throaty howls over a jumble of twangy rockabilly, raucous R&B and mid-'60s hallucinogenia, keeping the evening's retro-ripping drift alive. You could just as easily and more simply deem what Shaw & Co. do "garage punk," her rubbery bass lines and Blanchard's twinkling guitar plinkage shining beautifully through an otherwise raw-as-fuck delivery.
The Spin discovered headliner Mikal Cronin the old-fashioned way: by getting our first taste of his immaculate self-titled debut a few years ago while waiting to catch Cronin's sometime collaborator, bandmate and fellow San Franciscan Ty Segall. We were smitten. Monday's set was front-loaded with the breezy, jagged and fuzz-driven surf pop of the aforementioned LP. But when Cronin and his band started sinking into tunes from the recent sophomore full-length MCII — clean, bright, even-tempo cuts on record — they came off much more visceral. Squalling solos and drummer Emily Rose Epstein's pushing-and-pulling beats grungified the whole set, the imprecise and full-volume delivery adding a punk fury to songs that The Spin otherwise defines as really good pop, plain and simple.
MCII's effortless and infectious harmonies were largely absent, as Cronin handled almost all vocal duties himself — the fully stoked audience supplemented backups on the band's more popular tunes — and while quieter moments were peppered throughout the set and topped with Cronin's clean falsetto, they felt more like a brief landing just before the group blasted off yet again into another spacy, blown-out dirge. Anyway, not to be the old guys at the party, but damn — the kids grabbing hold of the chain that typically suspends the projector from the Fox's ceiling, swinging and pulling on it as they crowd-surfed ... well, it nearly gave us a heart attack. Be careful, you damn kids! Or don't. That's the beauty of a punk show, we suppose.