Jonathan Richman is one of the reasons I moved to Boston. The Pixies and Mission of Burma were the other two. I figured if a scene could support such left-field acts, then it had to be the place for me. Of course those scenes happened 25 (or more) years ago. Its harder to see the magic happening when it's all around you, but in the three years I've lived here, Boston has never let me down. As I prepare to move from Boston this summer, I've started to get sentimental about its scenes. The cutest of which is, of course, the twee scene. When Boston's painfully precious B for Brontosaurus emailed me about an upcoming night honoring Jonathan Richman, I couldn't imagine a better fit. The fact that this was a benefit for the Somerville Arts Council made the $8 price tag seem like a bargain.
Though the email said the show would start at 8 and the flyers professed a less optimistic 8:30, both were lies. Responding to a secret schedule, The Shrinking Islands took the stage at exactly 9:00. While the band is typically a two-piece featuring Kyle Bittinger on guitar and Andy Tefft on drums, on this night the duo was joined by Ernie Kim (Tirstan De Cunha/Harry and the Potters) on bass. The band presented a darker, more melancholy take on Richman's work, and set the tone for the evening by focusing primarily on his early material. Although the entirety of the short set was loose and noisy, Kim's sole vocal contribution of "Vincent Van Gogh" was a sloppy mess. Definitely not what I expected from a band known for it's tight, chiming Rickenbacker-driven pop.
Thanks to a common backline of gear, The Hyphens was up and ready to go just minutes after The Shrinking Islands had left the stage. This four-piece played the Lovers tightly and as straight up rock and roll. This worked well for "I'm Straight" but was a bit of a jolt for the fey "Ice Cream Man." The driving 1950s style of fan-favourite "Vampire Girl," was a good match for the band, and turned out to be one of the few tracks performed all night from Richman's 90s releases. As with each of the bands, The Hyphens had about four songs to make its point, and then it was off quicker then it came on.
To keep things speeding along, a second stage was set up at the back of the club for acoustic acts. The first of these was Shana's Mango, or rather the Lou Bunk half of that band. Bunk is a trained musician currently teaching at Boston Conservatory and working on lofty things like his Ph.D. in music composition and theory. Bunk is not, however, a stuffy gent. He's goofy, gregarious, and terribly entertaining. Aside from his duties as co-emcee for the evening, he turned in two sets of sincere, if not exactly tuneful, acoustic Richman covers. The highlight might have been a reworking of "You're Crazy for Taking the Bus" from Richman's 1990 country album. While his new slow introduction removed the Texas swing from the original, Bunk did recruit a couple of "Modern Lovers" from the audience to provide the authentic vocal counterpart from the original. Pointless fun.
Next up on the main stage was Spoilsport. This coed threesome plays a bouncy pop that sits somewhere between surf and punk (making it a lot like the Ramones, just not as speedy). The band was able to drive through a great version of "Government Center," and then drive all over "That Summer Feeling." While the band was definitely able to make the latter its own, the song lost all of the lazy, airy feeling that defines the original. Such is the danger in playing with originals that fans are bound to hold sacred.
After Spoilsport, Shana's Mango returned to the acoustic stage for a second short set that included "The Neighbors,” which was performed as a duet between Bunk and Joanna Solins (of B for Brontosaurus) with Ben Morse (also of B for Brontosaurus) on guitar. While the original song is a bit tongue-in-cheek, this version was entirely off the cuff and seemingly unrehearsed. I had hoped for a coed collaboration (after all, when I see Richman live, there is never a female vocal so these tunes are either altered severely or ignored entirely), but this version only dashed my hopes and left me disappointed. As such, I was ready when The Specific Heats signaled it was ready to begin on the main stage.
I had seen The Specific Heats for the first time a few months prior, and my comments weren't exactly flattering. Most of my complaints stemmed from the band's lack of energy and stage presence. These were not at issue on this night. With guest front man Abe Scott, and a guest bassist (possibly a former member), the threesome became a quintet and transformed itself from an indie pop act to a proto-punk powerhouse. While Jonathan Richman was a devotee of The Velvet Underground (the first Modern Lovers album made that fact obvious) the noisy proto-punk nuances always seemed like undertones to a lighter, safer, janglier base – the sound that would dominate all of Richman's later releases. The Specific Heats dragged out those undertones, made them front and center, and then shoved them down the audience's throats. "She Cracked" was loud and nasty. The constant sawing guitar, the disaffected vocals and the repetitive chiming keyboards made this song seem like the first post-punk song, not the proto-punk it really is. "Roadrunner" was a righteous blast accented perfectly by Jen Kamisnky's keyboards and Scott’s possessed energy. I'm not sure where this kid came from or how Iggy Pop came to inhabit his body, but he was intense and electric. Although I had pegged guitarist (and usual front man) Mat Patalano as a fluffy twee guitarist, his blazing solos showed the boy has chops. The entirety of the short set was energy and magic. This is a set I'd pay to see again. Sadly I never will, and if you missed it, boy, did you miss it.
After the carnage on the main stage, the audience turned around to catch the suitably tamer Tony the Bookie (aka Tony Confalone, the booking agent for PA's Lounge) on the acoustic stage. Confalone's selections included mostly newer love songs, and a few of the later period pop songs. While Richman is definitely playful, his odes to both the places and people he has loved also have a wise worldliness to them. Of all of the artists performing that night, it was Confalone who had the most success in portraying that gravitas. Furthermore, by merely adding maracas and shakers to his set, the songs sounded startlingly authentic. This was particularly true of his crowd-pleasing version of "I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar."
If the shift between The Specific Heats and Tony The Bookie was startling, the shift from Tony the Bookie to The Rabbit Family Girls' Choir was cataclysmic. The Rabbit Family is a complete enigma to me, and Google offers no help. Initially, the band consisted of one tall gent dressed entirely in black with a small, incredibly loud, incredibly overdriven amplifier and an electric guitar. Then a young gal attempting to play a single snare drum joined him on stage. It was obvious from the start that this girl had no rhythm whatsoever and was terribly frightened to be on stage. It was also painfully obvious from the start that this would be a different sort of set. The mysterious figure in black began the set by taking the microphone away from emcee Lou Bunk, and shouting "SHUT THE FUCK UP" at the shocked audience. He then performed a couple of short, mostly a cappella (save some stomping percussion) Richman ballads, with a several minute feedback fest inserted in the middle of the set for no apparent reason. When one audience member protested by shouting an anonymous "Fuck this" at the band, the mysterious front man took that as a sign to continue his performance and moved throughout the audience, adding in ad lib stanzas and clanging the two live microphones together for emphasis. When it was over 10 minutes later, The Rabbit Family Girls' Choir had made its statement, but the audience had no idea what that statement was. They only knew they were glad it was over.
Tony the Bookie reclaimed the audience's attention and provided another short set on the acoustic stage while B for Brontosaurus set up its gear. To accommodate the band, monitors had to be pushed forward into the crowd, and microphones moved down from the small stage onto the floor. While the band is generally a three piece, for this set two saxophonists and a fulltime keyboardist joined the trio. This led front man Ben Morse to temporarily rename the band "U for Ultrasaurus." Of all of the bands playing this evening or any of the front men who performed, Morse recalls the wide-eyed naivet of Jonathan Richman the best. It was also obvious that Brontosaurus had spent the most time preparing for this show. Not only were the songs tight and spot on, but the arrangements were also grand. Who knew this little twee band could handle this leap in scope? The band covered a variety of Jonathan's more sunny offerings ("Abominable Snowman in the Market" was a big hit, as was "Lydia" from 1979's Back in Your Life). While I expected the band might shoot for some of Jonathan's most (sickeningly) childlike offerings such as "Chewing Gum Wrapper," "Buzz Buzz Buzz," or "Party in the Woods Tonight," those songs remained untouched throughout the evening.
Midway through Brontosaurus' set, Morse began to look a bit grey and asked for acoustic act John O'Hara to play immediately. Morse sat down on the stage for a moment, but was soon helped outside while O'Hara began his set a bit earlier than expected. Thankfully O'Hara was ready for his call up, and performed a set of two or three songs spanning Richman's career. There was a coffee shop/folk feel to O'Hara's set, and a nice vibrato that recalled the most earnest moments from The Barenaked Ladies' Stephen Page. Just as the audience was starting to realize the show was not on the main stage but back with O'Hara, a winded but relieved Morse returned to the stage and Brontosaurus continued its set. After another song or two, the ashen hue returned, and so did John O'Hara for a second set that included "I'm a Little Dinosaur" as a duet with Megan Adams. How Brontosaurus didn't see fit to cover that track may be the ultimate mystery. Eventually Morse was able to return to the stage for the band's final number. While it was disconcerting to see a musician singing in front of an emergency trashcan, the disjointed set was completed on a high note for an appreciative crowd that was impressed by Morse's valiant effort.
With the last acoustic act of the night already tapped, the show hit its first lull as the audience waited for Anuska Pop to set up its gear. Twenty minutes later when the band would begin its set, the evening's entire vibe would change. The night made a quick transition from a bunch of friends getting together to celebrate Richman's music, into a proper rock concert. Anuska Pop isn't another cutesy coed twee band, but a high-energy power-pop trio. Richman's songs were never so full and intense (not even the first album had such buzzing guitars), and the change was a bit startling. As if to relate the band's music back to its source, vocalist John Soares affected the Jonathan Richman voice with some success. While a bit corny, it did soften the impact of Richman's songs being propelled by a hyperactive bass, and a driving guitar.
As the final act of the evening, The Double Stops continued the rock show vibe. The Double Stops is a four piece co-fronted by Ben Simon and Isaiah Davidson Weiss. The pair swapped instruments (bass and guitar) and lead vocal duties all night, although it was Weiss and his manic delivery that really defined the band's stage show. While the frontmen were still loose and jovial, the "I'd like to thank all the other bands for playing"-esque banter made it apparent that they felt the band was the headliner and not merely the last act of the night. Exactly what the band played is long forgotten at this point, but it definitely focused on the early Modern Lovers portion of Richman's career. While not nearly as chaotic and energetic as the earlier set from The Specific Heats, the band's performance was high energy and loud. The audience responded by first bouncing along, and soon transforming the area in front of the stage into a full-on dance party. While other bands may have only played 15 or 20 minutes, The Double Stops easily played twice that. And when the set was done, the band dug out an incredibly sloppy encore to appease the now-amped crowd.
At the end of the night, it was obvious no one band (or even Jonathan Richman himself) could portray the variety and depth of Richman's 30-year musical career. A few had managed to channel one element of Richman's music surprisingly well, most had been able to portray Richman's songs in a pleasant light, and a few had gone off the deep end entirely. This is the diversity that I've grown accustomed to in Boston; and who knows, one of these bands might someday be the reason someone else moves to Boston.