The super-slick Jayhawks give a first-rate lesson in alt-country professionalism, but as Getintothis’ Mike Torpey suggests it’s the Richmond Fontaine’s bleak rough round the edges imagery which truly captures the imagination.
Willy Vlautin yearned to be a punk rocker so passionately that he even superglued picks to his fingers in a hopeless attempt to speed up his guitar playing.
It was a wasted exercise though, because he wasn’t angry enough at the world to write any half decent punk songs.
So he became a house painter, and as decorators do, he had a portable CD player on the go. Problem was, he only ever played the same record – all day, every day.
It drove his normally placid boss to distraction, until one day the inevitable happened. “He said ‘I’m sorry Willy, either that disc goes or you’re out of a job,’ so being a pussycat I slung it in the bin,” recalled the singer/songwriter.
That CD was called Tomorrow the Green Grass by alt country rock band The Jayhawks and 17 years down the line here was Vlautin, frontman for the bleak but brilliant Richmond Fontaine, opening on tour for the Minnesota outfit.
Vlautin’s both a musical and literary genius, his bleak, uncompromising songs about, lovers, losers and the socially destitute conjuring up cinematic images of desperation in the mould of Nebraska-era Springsteen.
And playing a 10-song set as a duo with fellow Fontaine guitar player Dan Eccles he treated a discerning audience to gems like Lost In The Trees, The Boyfriends and the heartbreaking Lost In This World.
Those who missed it should check out Richmond Fontaine, normally a headline act in their own right – their 2004 offering Post To Wire a classic in it’s own right.
If this band has never received the sort of mainstream recognition it deserves the same can be said to a lesser extent for The Jayhawks.
Had their ‘breakthrough’ album Hollywood Town Hall been released during the heyday of country rock heavyweights like The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, America and Poco they might have been massive.
As it was, that record and its follow-up Tomorrow the Green Grass were laced with little vignettes about life in the mid-West, all geared to the harmonies of guitarists Gary Louris and Mark Olson.
Olson quit not long after and, even given some minor highlights along the way, he’s been sorely missed.
The pair are like chalk and cheese, Louris clearly a rocker – if an understated one – and Olson looking the full-on country singer.
They have a chemistry though, and it bubbled through in a 23-song spot that leaned heavily on the past while underlining that they can still write sharp, pop-inflected, songs that would appeal to most audiences.
The likes of opener Wichita, Two Angels and the hooky Settled Down Like Rain were from Hollywood Town Hall while fans of the Tomorrow album got Blue, Two Hearts, I’d Run Away and Miss Williams’ Guitar.
Their newly-released record Mockingbird Time is a mixed bag of material, the better songs like Black-Eyed Susan, the upbeat She Walks In So Many Ways and more earthy Calexico-style Tiny Arrows all making the live playlist.
I’m sweet on this kind of music and loathe to criticise a band as slick and professional as The Jayhawks, but they’re missing a trick.
For me the highlight of the show was the moody, magnificent Tampa to Tulsa, written and sung by drummer Tim O’Reagan. More of the same and that grass can indeed get greener.