Jonathan Richman, Crescent Ballroom, 6/28/12

Jonathan Richman Crescent Ballroom Thursday, June 28

See also: Jonathan Richman Doesn't Care for "Masculine Arrogance" See also: Our full Jonathan Richman at Crescent Ballroom slideshow.

It's hard to know exactly what to say about about Jonathan Richman's performance at Crescent Ballroom last night.

Not because things weren't memorable (they were) or uneventful. Not because the crowd wasn't interesting and hilarious. And certainly not because Richman's performance lacked (it didn't). But the songwriter opened with a cut from his 2004 album Not So Much to Be Loved As to Love called "He Gave Us the Wine to Taste It," a song that warns against thinking too much, that celebrates the joy of experience over obsessive contemplation.

"He gave us the wine to taste and not to discuss," the 61-year-old singer intoned over the tasteful and sparse drumming of longtime collaborator Tommy Larkins.

And frankly, it's hard to take notes after that. Not only because of the poetic implications, but because Richman is hard to take your eyes off of. Shuffling around the stage, abandoning the microphone anchoring both his booming, unique voice and the nylon-string guitar he strummed to wander to the edges of the stage and sing directly to the crowd, or putting the guitar down altogether to boogie down as Larkins (dressed nattily in green jeans, green T-shirt, a dress blazer, and sunglasses) stomped quietly but masterfully.

Richman sang the haunting "Springtime in New York" next and paused to ask the crowd why the line about a freshly demolished building bringing "the smell of 1890 to the air" made people laugh. "I never got the joke of that line," he said. "It's just the smell of the plaster in the air." He sang it again, and this time no laughs obscured the deep melancholy of that line.

He scolded the New Times photographer, too, as he snapped off a shot during a quiet moment onstage. "Don't click that thing," he said, a sort of mischievous smile on his face. "I'm sure you're taking wonderful photos, but it's all about timing, young man."

Obsessive about the pureness of his sound, Richman controlled the levels from the stage, stooping down to adjust as he went on, and sometimes employing a slight touch of slapback reverb to his guitar. The concern of sonic purity also necessitated that the air conditioner was off, which of course led to a bit of grumbling from the Phoenix crowd. An intermission allowed for the air to be turned back on (it was nice) but slight sweat worked up during favorites like "Egyptian Reggae" and "I Was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar" felt entirely natural.

Richman alternated between French, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, and his own Bostonian inflection to deliver songs like "O Moon, Queen of the Night," "Girlfriend," and "Let Her Go Into the Darkness."

Richman ended with "When We Refuse to Suffer," a meditation on choosing the real over the fake, the hard over the easy, and pain over numbness. It was a stunning end to a stunning night of music. In the hands of a lesser artist, Richman's sentiments could come off as cloying or trite. Yet Richman never falls into that, singing sweetly about painful things, and finding the deep melancholy in happiness. And rather than feeling like a poetry reading, it was celebratory. "I like it when you keep the backbeat," Richman said as the audience clapped along earlier in the set. "It makes it much more festive, which is our natural state."

Critic's Notebook

Last Night: Jonathan Richman at Crescent Ballroom The Crowd: A whole bunch of genuine folks, looking to spend some time with an enigmatic, charismatic, charming poet. How About Those Drums: Restraint, class, boom boom boom. Overheard: "I mean, he's pretty good at guitar, but this is terrible." Shouting Modern Lovers Songs: I love those songs too. But he's not going to do "Roadrunner." It's Not All Funny: I get it. Sometimes it's easier to laugh when it's kind of weird and out of your comfort zone, but Richman doesn't make novelty songs. These aren't jokes. They're warm. They're oft-kilter. They mischievous. There are laughs to be had, but it's not all laughs. It's strange how foreign complete sincerity sounds, isn't it? Made It Home in Time to Catch The New Episode of Louie: ...and, jeez, was Louie having a bad day!

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.