Jonathan Richman has been known to play some pretty unpredictable shows over the years, but few as unusual as his appearance last Wednesday at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
There, the onetime founder of the Modern Lovers was wrapping up a pretty heady series there featuring bands whose DNA could be traced directly to the band Warhol helped shape, the Velvet Underground. Previous performers in the series included Television and Luna.
Richman, appearing on a stark stage with his longtime percussionist Tommy Larkins, said he met Warhol about a half dozen times when he was a teen, a fan of the Velvets and curious about Warhol’s art.
“I’m afraid I don’t get it,” the young Richman told the pop artist of his work.
“Yes, you do,” Warhol replied.
And so he did, certainly grasping, he says, the colors of the soup cans and Brillo boxes (he marvels at supermarket aisles for product colors too, he said). In the museum, he said he finally understood the floating Mylar pillows in his “Clouds” piece. And though he didn’t understand the films of stationery objects at the time, he says he now gets their textures and subtlety.
Richman says he was spooked by being in the museum amid so much Warhol work — and spooked too about saying he hadn’t seen some of it for half a century. He was also likely rattled by being interviewed by museum staff earlier in the day — he’s not a guy that takes to interviews well.
All of it seemed to affect his concert such that he almost neglected to play an entire song. His long Warhol rap, fascinating as it was, came during a piece that began with him singing “That Summer Feeling,” but never getting close to even beginning that classic song, only its title. Rather, as he strummed guitar and Larkin kept beat, he spun his spoken word tale.
He seemed to snap back during “Egyptian Reggae,” that old instrumental, a hit abroad, but it only seemed to remind him of his European affections. He’d sing one song in Spanish about welcoming you to a party, then another in Italian. All the while, he’d work out his acoustic guitar in Flamenco inspired melodic runs.
There was a whole segment where he’d start a song with one drum pattern, get Larkins to try it with another, and finally get him to start a third, trying to sing a seemingly spontaneous number. And while it never quite coalesced, it was interesting to see him essentially trying to give birth to a song, difficult as it was. The crowd was certainly rapt through it all and encouraging (except one guy who muttered “Heart of Saturday Night” and “Roadrunner” as ignored requests).
Certainly some would have just rather heard even a few of his many great songs. But that is part of the surprise and sometime exasperation of a Jonathan show.
Here he was in a museum that devotes one whole room to the sound of the Velvets in a convincingly reproduced environment of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Still, he didn’t choose to sing his one song on the subject, “The Velvet Underground.”
He preferred to discuss, on the other hand, a Dutch painter from another museum and century, in “No One was Like Vermeer.”
A big chunk of the show seemed to go in and out of his song “Take Me to the Plaza,” extolling the pleasure of playing in a park among people. He eschews barriers between him and the audience and therefore walks away from the microphone frequently to showcase an unamplified voice. He stopped short, though, of jumping into the crowd.
From that song, he jumped into more Flamenco-style workouts, did a bit of dance, and sang more of his Esperanto rock and roll. He also got to rail against computers, all manner of screens, and phones that beep in your pocket without going fully into another newer song he has about the whole subject, “”You Can Have a Cell Phone, That’s OK But Not Me.”
There were some delights emerging from almost finished songs, such as one about how a bonfire changes the atmosphere at a party.
From the Modern Lovers songbook came just one song, “Old World” (and from that, just about one updated verse about the cummerbund).
And to the chagrin of the people from his current Cleveland-based label Blue Arrow Records, he played neither of his new singles, “O Sun”/Wait Wait Wait” nor “Keith,” about the Rolling Stone, backed with “The Door to Bohemia.”
Eventually he got to “Because Her Beauty was Raw and Wild” (some of it) and “Not So Much to be Loved as to Love” and even “Springtime in New York” and “These Bodies That Came to Cavort” at show’s end.
But so many of the songs he’s been usually playing live lately, from “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar” to “Let Her Go Into the Darkness” were missing in action.
It was as if he was learning once more from Warhol after all these years, something about minimalism, to the extreme.
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