Singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman, who will probably never outlive his Modern Lovers fame, played a personal, partly hilarious and partly intellectual show Monday night at the region’s newest music venue The Low Beat, which opened last month.
Richman’s entire presence is a put-on, his songs generally steeped in humor with underlining lessons. When least guarded, however, he delivers unexpected poignancy.
And occasionally he’s the one caught off guard, or at least pretends to be, as when his verse detailed the smell of the foundation of a pre-war New York City building and drew strong laughter.
“I didn’t write that to be funny,” he insisted, though his hyper-detailed lines, even when interesting, made it hard to resist laughing.
He performed with drummer Tommy Larkins, which he has been doing for many years. “I don’t go anywhere without my drummer,” he told us. Several times he gave Larkins the floor, alerting him with queues like, “Let’s see where Tommy’s at,” or suddenly barking, “Tommy, play drums!”
Richman talks through his lyrics more than he sings them, with a brighter and lighter Lou Reed style. “Back in the days of old Rembrandt . . . all of them giants of shadow and light, but no one was like Vermeer.”
He sang in French, translating for us between each verse, the English version offering at least triple the amount of information the French lines offered. The crowd rose a bit for “I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar,” a song about his evening in such a bar and then the gay bar across the street. “In the first bar they were drinking sips. In this bar they could shake their hips.”
The spirited crowd often quieted itself to pin-drop levels to hear Richman whisper his witty punch-lines. He makes eye contact with his fans while singing or strumming, smiling or singing directly at them with his sarcastic expressions. He was concerned for the people in the back of the club, enough to leave the stage, walk to the back and make sure everyone could see how he looked up close.
He surprised us with the gentle, intimate “Springtime in New York.” The other relationship song he sang focused on fighting, or letting “her go into the darkness” with the new boyfriend.
He sang a rockabilly put-on tribute to Keith Richards, describing him “playing like a freight train, looking like skin and bones.”
Richman mixed Stones riffs inside his rhythm playing, singing, it’s “not exactly the blues, cause it’s sort of European.” When pushing his voice, which he did on this song, it sounded — not only his inflections — uncannily like Lou Reed.
The Low Beat is run by Howard Glassman, who opened it after running Valentine’s for 15 years, which was recently shut down for Albany Medical Center’s planned expansion. The move has brought welcomed attention to Glassman’s club, and Monday it was filled with a vibrant, relaxed and happy group.
With Glassman’s history of success booking independent acts — national and local — that often have no other appropriate place to play in the region, it’s likely the Low Beat will prosper under his management and quickly contribute to the region’s music scene, as it did Monday night.