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Published on March 10th, 2014 | by Ballard Lesemann


Review: Jonathan Richman, Low Volume and High Spirit

Jonathan Richman & Tommy Larkins
The Pour House
March 9

Sunday night’s Jonathan Richman performance in the main room at the Pour House may well be one of quietest and most intimate shows of the year at the venue — if ever. Armed with little more than a nylon-string acoustic and a small collection of hand percussion, the veteran singer/songwriter captivated an intensely attentive and polite crowd of local fans

With no amps on stage, Richman approached the microphone stand at stage right around 9:45 p.m., grinning and gazing wide-eyed at his cozy audience. At 62, he looked as innocent and joyful as he did on the album covers of his early ’70s band, the Modern Lovers.


Tommy Larkins and Jonathan Richman at the Pour House, March 2014 (photo by Ballard Lesemann)

Within moments of the first two songs — a strummy pop tunes about taking chances on relationships and a delicate, audience-interactive ballad about autumn in New York — attendees knew they were in for a unique performance. Richman often backed far away from his vocal and guitar mics, singing and playing forcefully and unamplified. It drew everyone in closer to the stage and the music, both physically and emotionally.

Richman strummed and plucked alongside longtime drummer Tommy Larkins, who was situated at an abbreviated jazz kit up front at stage left. Larkins used to play standing up on a vintage “cocktail kit,” but he keeps time these days with brushes or mallets on a four-piece with sizzling cymbals and a congo substituting for a snare drum.

It was unusually quiet in the Pour House. Richman had already request that management kill the AC and turn off all of the fans to reduce any background noise.

The low-volume rattle of rumble of Larkins drums and high hat cymbals allowed Richman plenty of sonic space to play, narrate, laugh, and sigh. During the first few numbers, Richman spent almost as much time telling romantic stories and silly anecdotes as he did playing guitar and singing. He often laid his guitar down, nearly abandoning the song, and cheerfully eased into an exotic dance step or two before returning to his six-string and guiding the set into the next tune.


Tommy Larkins and Jonathan Richman at the Pour House, March 2014 (photo by Ballard Lesemann)

Richman and Larkins generally kept things loose, but they locked in nicely during certain verses, choruses, and transitions. Richman mixed things up lyrically, too, singing in three Latin-based languages throughout the set. The French-based “Sa Voix M’Atisse,” from his latest album O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth, was the first linguistic twist of the night. The silly “Ja La BBQ” and party anthem “La Fiesta Es Para Todos” (roughly, “Everyone’s welcome at the party”) veered into Spanish. Some Italiano popped up as well.

Who knew that Richman was a burgeoning percussionist? He might not have been perfectly on every downbeat, but he regularly left his his six-string to tap and shake a variety of Latin rhythms on cowbells, maracas, and sleighbells.

As a fan of Richman’s earliest Modern Lovers material, I was quietly hoping for an old Modern Lovers classic — crossing the fingers for a version of “She Cracked,” “Old World,” “Pablo Piccaso,” or “Astral Plane” — but I already knew that he rarely dips back into the Lovers’ vintage catalog.

Richman and Larkins breathed giddy new life into an old A.M. radio hit when they delivered an unexpected rendition of the 1973 pop song “Dancing in the Moonlight” (originally by King Harvest). The post-breakup ballad “Let Her Go Into the Darkness” (from his album You Must Ask the Heart, a song prominently featured in the 1998 comedy film There’s Something About Mary) earned loud cheers from old-school fans. Richman’s story behind “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar” (from his 1992 album I, Jonathan) ticked fans as much as the actual verses and his hip-shaking dance moves between them.


Richman apologized to the world for his bratty behavior as a teenager during the hilarious “My Affected Accent” (also from O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth).

During “No One Was Like Vermeer” — a curious slow number about the 17th century painter Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (“his warm-hearted color range … sends a chill up your spine”), Richman mentioned during an aside that Vermeer’s daughter Maria may have actually painted “one sixth” of the famous Vermeer pieces. It was one several strange and amusing asides of the night.

Nostalgic, sincere, thoughtful, and occasionally melancholic, Richman and Larking won the hearts of the audience with their low-volume-but-dynamic set. Let’s hope they get to steer their unique pop/rock show back to Charleston soon again.

Top photo by Rory Earnshaw.



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About the Author

Ballard Lesemann

is a musician and writer. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., he spent years playing in bands and working for Flagpole Magazine in the bustling music town of Athens, Ga. He returned to his hometown and served more than seven years as the Charleston City Paper's music editor. He's better at drumming than he is at playing guitar.

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