They don’t write ‘em like that any more. No, wait; Marshall Crenshaw does, as he demonstrated all by himself at the Van Dyck on Saturday.
He said he had a cold and an ear problem and was afraid to try some songs, but nobody might have noticed without those caveats — partly because he soldiered on through his first 70-minute set without cracking or gasping, and partly because the songs are so cool.
Seated in his stingy-brim hat and black everything else, he played guitar and baritone guitar, both electrics, sang in an intact, supple voice, played sharp guitar and showed off song after classic song.
Not all were his: He told of hearing “The Endless Sleep” on the radio of a 1949 Ford his father won as a raffle booby prize before strutting through this “rockabilly death song,” as he put it. He cited his portrayal of Buddy Holly in the film “La Bamba” to introduce Holly’s “Crying Waiting Hoping” and “Reminiscing,” both with authentic-to-period but still surprising guitar breaks.
Otherwise, Crenshaw showcased his own songs, a stunning display of pop-rock tunecraft at its deceptively simple and compellingly sincere best.
Crenshaw’s tunes didn’t do ironic distance on Saturday despite their 1950s-style guys and girls romanticism. He’s still a romantic, with both bruises and bravado
“There She Goes Again,” his opener, and “Dime A Dozen Guy,” near the end, lamented the loss of a girl. While “Passing Through” — “a joyful song about mortality,” he called it — “What Do You Dream Of” and “Whenever You’re On My Mind” celebrated love in happier terms, “What I Don’t Want to Do,” “Cynical Girl” and “I Don’t See You Laughing Now” issued sharp rejections, the first to a girl, the second to all girls and the third to white-collar criminals.
The harshly funny “Laughing” would have felt out of place, castigating an entire class of people he feels should be “fired from the human race,” but it was as expertly and pungently crafted as his guy and girl songs.
There was nothing fancy about Crenshaw’s melodies, and nothing overly familiar, either, but they hit the ear of the rock-raised listeners who packed the Van Dyck like hot, hip tunes from the 1950s or ’60s. Crenshaw’s presentation fit them well. He nailed even the songs he was afraid of, proclaiming himself happy with the way “Laughing” turned out and diving into his first (and biggest) hit, “Some Day Some Way” next, with confidence renewed.
In “Someday” and “Whenever I Think About You,” he rushed from one phrase into another, the first barely finished before he charged ahead. And he played guitar with the same rhythmic fearlessness. The crowd only applauded one solo, the tumbling break in “Crying Waiting Hoping,” but many more were clap-worthy gems.
Crenshaw said the Van Dyck was the first venue that invited him to play solo, in 2003, and he enjoyed it so much, he’s continued.
“I like the intimacy and quietness (of playing solo),” he said after Saturday’s show. “You can really hear what the songs are and what they’re about.”
His are masterpieces, about what the best pop and rock have always been about: guys and girls.