Jonathan Richman Concert Review
Friday 13th October 2006,
All Saints Church, Newcastle
When I first heard that Jonathan was going to be playing in an old church in Newcastle, I did wonder how that would be. I had visions of him being at the front of the aisle with us in the audience all lined up watching him in narrow pews: of course with no room to dance. Or maybe it would be in a dusty old church hall, straight after the boy scouts or yoga group had finished? Thankfully it turned out to be neither, and in fact was rather lovely.
All Saints Church is an 1796 “elliptical” Church, quite a significant one too apparently, and right in the centre of Newcastle. We all gathered at first in the little circular entrance hall, buying pints of beer and sitting on the steps of the grandest baptismal font I have ever seen, until at last they opened the doors and let us in the church proper.
And what a surprise, what a quirky, lovely arrangement of space it was in there! I’m not too well up on ecclesiastical terms, so bear with me, but the room itself was circular with a kind of stage to the front with a little railing all round it, nicely lit as if for a nativity play or harvest festival. At head height, on either side of the stage, statues of Jesus and Mary stood in little alcoves, their arms outstretched. In front of this, a fine wooden floor of quite generous size, and beyond that, in a grand sweeping circle, all around the edges of the room, about seven or eight rows of mahogany pews, all sectioned off into little gated stalls. A stunning place by any standards.
Jonathan loved this room’s acoustics, and commented on how good the sound was in there – we all know how much this kind of thing matters to him, so I think it definitely put him in a good mood from the outset!
First up though was the support act, singer/guitarist Elaine Palmer. Her voice was sweet and clear, and put one in mind sometimes of Melanie, other times of the Cowboy Junkies. There was just something about that venue that let her voice carry and fill the space quite beautifully. The audience listened to her set in hushed, rapt attention, and every song was warmly applauded.
When Jonathan and Tommy arrived, they played for about one minute to an empty dance floor, save one brave soul who was determined to dance. The rest us stayed put in our little gated stalls. Then a couple of people crept onto the dance floor and sat down.
“Hey, c’mon” said Jonathan “I’m glad to see you on the dance floor, but you don’t have to sit down, you know – I would much rather you stood up!” With that a huge cheer went up and about 80 per cent of the audience at once ran onto the dance floor –
and from that moment on it was like the concert had started properly.
Jonathan did a fine selection of old and new stuff: “Let her go into the Darkness”, “Her mystery (not of high heels)”, “Egyptian Reggae”, “He gave us the wine to taste it”, “I was dancing in the Lesbian Bar” (this one went down an absolute STORM for some reason – and was by far the audience’s favourite) “Old World” (but with slightly different lyrics) and also some newer ones (“Celestiale?” “Partners in Crime?”) which the audience seemed to appreciate just as much as the more familiar stuff.
The lighting in the room was quite lovely, and definitely deserves a mention. When Jonathan was doing his quirky dancing, or shaking his cow-bells, if he moved to the front of the stage he cast 20 foot high shadows of himself to either side of the wall – Dancing Jonathans in triplicate!
At the end of the show, Jonathan bid the crowd farewell and departed the room. For some reason, this crowd seemed to have no idea that Jonathan rarely does encores, and to be honest I think he had enjoyed the set so much he didn’t keep them waiting, but came back on stage pretty much straight away.
What followed was rather special. He played one song – not a bright, up-beat crowd-pleaser, not a safe old favourite. He played a song that I’m guessing not one person in the hall had ever heard before – an achingly well crafted, intensely personal account of his own mother’s death “As my mother lay dying.” He sang it quietly, so we all had to stand still and listen if we were to hear it properly. And listen we did; you could have heard a pin drop. After that, there was no need for any further songs.
It seemed like one of those moments where Jonathan is truly bold, truly unafraid to bare his soul, to commune with his audience. He still maintains that ability to surprise and delight, to throw the unexpected right at you from nowhere. This is one of the reasons why a live Jonathan Richman concert remains one of life’s great and particular pleasures, and why, one night on, I am already looking forward to the next one!