Barely three songs into the set, Jonathan Richman has stopped playing. “It feels like… we’re too far away” he says. Briefly deliberating with the only other band member, longtime drummer Tommy Larkins, he sets about rearranging their equipment til the pair are barely two feet away from the audience.
It doesn’t take long – there’s just a basic drum kit to move. Richman’s guitar isn’t even plugged in. In fact, the only hint of extravagance about the whole show is the colourful patterned jacket that Larkins is wearing.
It’s a genuinely spontaneous act, explained by Richman in a part apology/part anecdote about his fear of “falling over while dancing” on the bump midstage.
And the audience isn’t in any hurry. They’ve been looking forward to seeing him. It’s Jonathan Richman, after all. The cult hero. The wide eyed, ultra direct troubadour. ‘The Man Who Was Too Loud’. He’s even been called the ‘godfather of punk’. Many words have been used to describe Richman over his forty year career, and there’s probably an element of truth to many of them. But without actually witnessing it, it’s hard to get a sense of the sincerity and spontaneity of his performance.
There’s a diverse audience gathered in Clwb Ifor Bach tonight. Certainly, some of the crowd will have been around for the very first Modern Lovers release in 1976. But the only trace of nostalgia in the set is in the subject matter of the songs themselves. ‘My Affected Accent’ tears into his schooldays (“I used big words and I talked through my hat/I said ‘reclined’ when I should have said ‘sat’”). Newer song ‘Bohemia’ is closest the gig comes to a singalong, reminiscing how his parents tolerated his “pretentious art portfolio” to nudge him towards pursuing a musical career.
There’s a cheer when Richman plucks out the melody from ‘Egyptian Reggae’, but requests for the oldest songs – save for a solitary call for ‘Roadrunner’ – are few. He’s certainly open to to the odd request, granting one woman a sprawling, dignified version of ‘When We Refuse to Suffer’ Maybe people are too polite to call out. But it’s more likely they appreciate the show they’re actually getting.
Performing a clutch of songs in Spanish and French could so easily go wrong. Richman’s been doing it for years (even rerecording an album of his own songs in “perfectly rhyming” Spanish), He pretty much pulls it off with the gusto of any of his other songs, breaking into English now and then to ‘translate’, breaking the musical fourth wall as he does it.
The remarkable thing is the sheer sound produced by this unorthodox drums and nylon guitar combination. Richman famously turned his back on the Velvet-esque rock of his debut early on, frustrating and enticing people in equal measure with his determination to play more quietly. Thinking about it, he’s actually spent the majority of his career performing in this kind of setting now. Besides, he was never that raucous anyway.
Yes, there are times during the set where it’s so quiet you can hear the cameras of the people at the front whirring. But it’s hard not to get a sense that Richman is creating rock and roll music in its most primal form. Edging that guitar closer to the microphone to pull off a solo has the effect of making you pay more attention, for one thing.
When Richman utters “diolch” halfway through the set, the wildly appreciative reaction from a certain section of the audience really does seem to please him as much as it pleases them. A friend sees him the next morning “strolling along the river, swinging his guitar case”. If you’ve seen him play, you can probably picture it well.
This review originally appeared on Plastik