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Speaking our language

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Jonathan Richman
Sticky FIngerz
Feb. 23

Jonathan Richman, the eclectic singer-songwriter and even would-be actor (“There’s Something About Mary”), has a bit of a weak handshake. At the foot of Sticky Fingerz’ stage, staring up at the singer, probably looking to him like some sort of confused zombie with my arm held out and my eyes nearly shut to find shade from the houselights, I said something like, “Wow, thanks Mr. Richman,” and I shook his hand, and there it was. Rather weak.

I don’t hold it against him. Would you? I daresay that even the most delirious arm-wrestler would forgive Richman’s glad-handing ability. For a man who is described almost always as “childlike,” Richman played (and sang, and danced, and talked) a very mature show, with the accompaniment of drummer Tommy Larkins.

Tommy Larkins — now here was a drummer who played with the barest flick of the wrists and the slightest raise of the heels you’d care to see, but he called up a fluid and truly complimentary sound. His style reminded me, seriously, of an effortless game I saw Scottie Pippen play in his last NBA season.

Richman was no less talented musically, percussive with his guitar leads and smooth and full with his rhythm. I suppose you just have to call someone childlike who sings about the appeal of buses to a 2-year-old, yet Richman exposed his marked lack of innocence (I was nearly taken in by his startled-puppy persona) when he stopped a song to order a ceiling fan turned off. This was no rockstar whine: Razorback basketball is back on track if the rest of the song didn’t sound awesome in the relative silence of the room.

Richman has a pure, troubadour’s tenor, which combined with his insistent presence behind the guitar manages the trick of filling a space and at the same time sounding fragile. Only once during the set, more or less a string of Richman greatest hits, did I feel the vibe start to sag, and this was when Richman sang yet another song in French. To his distinction, Richman is really a professor of Romance languages in disguise (Can you sing that in Spanish? Yes. Italian? Yes. French? D’accord!).

The fact remains that translation can be an exercise in pretension as easily as it can be magical. However, songs about, and in languages of, Europe are all right with me when they are sung by the first man to confess to being a Modern Lover. Like a soft handshake, a little French is forgiveable.

— Charles Lyford

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