Gary Louris & Mark Olson – Aladdin Theater (Portland, OR)
This reunion show was as on-key as it was low-key. Gary Louris and Mark Olson quietly walked onstage about 8:05 p.m. (there was no opener); Olson saluted the crowd, and they both sat down on stools to embark on the first of two sets. (Louris: “Per the management; first time we’ve done two sets since the 400 Bar in 1986.”)
The music that followed proved once again, though certainly this crowd of loyalists needed no fresh evidence, that these two guys were made to sing together. Without the benefit of the Jayhawks’ fine rhythm section, this show was all about the voices.
While it’s been eleven years since Olson walked away from Louris and the Jayhawks, time has been kind to these men. They looked good (Louris in his customary fine threads and hipster specs), and easily enjoyed their relaxed banter, seeming like old friends rather than once-estranged band members. Most of all, they sang beautifully.
The back catalogue ain’t so bad either. Olson and Louris turned in heartfelt folkie renditions of all their best songs from their time together — “I’d Run Away”, “Blue”, “Clouds”, “Waiting For The Sun”, “See Him On The Street”, etc. — performing most of both 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall and 1995’s Tomorrow The Green Grass. Highlights were many, but the soaring harmonies on “Nothing Left To Borrow”, “Crowded In The Wings,” and a nicely slowed-down “Settled Down Like Rain” were stunning. Hearing their perfectly matched voices together again merely underscored how lost an art vocal harmony has become in rock music.
Louris gave the songs a bit more edge than just two guys sitting in chairs playing acoustic guitars, liberally using various electric pickups, pedals, and effects such as tremolo. Louris’ style is as much informed by his impeccably good taste as his originality and technical skills. When he turned it loose a bit as on “Sister Cried”, the rougher edge merely brought a different kind of texture to the sweetness of the vocals.
Olson and Louris also learned one of the lessons of the Everlys and Beach Boys especially well: a gorgeous vocal harmony can make a sad song such as “Over My Shoulder” all the more bittersweet and aching. While some top singer-songwriter duos thrive on the marked contrast in their styles and voices (Lennon-McCartney), Olson and Louris are more like matched bookends, and rather than get in each other’s way, they manage to elevate each other’s best work. Notably, when Olson lent his vocal weight to two post-Olson Jayhawks’ songs, “Tailspin” and “Angelyne”, the songs were better for it. And the only dud of the night was one Louris sang by himself, “Save It For A Rainy Day” — a song I like very much, but it seemed pointless to deny it the benefit of Olson’s tenor, which warms up every note it touches.