Jayhawks – Bowery Ballroom (New York City, NY)
One of this night’s covers was a chugging old David Wiffen obscurity that fell off the last Byrds LP and onto Roger McGuinn’s first solo outing, the one that confides, “I feel like some old engine that’s Lost My Drivin’ Wheel.” Fans who packed this downtown Manhattan venue for the last night of this stripped-down, acoustic East Coast tour, might have wondered if that metaphor was all too close to home.
The masterpiece Hollywood Town Hall is a decade old this year, and this band has hung in there through the departure of founding co-writer and co-leader Mark Olson, followed by keyboard and harmony stalwart Karen Grotberg, and most recently Kraig Johnson and Jen Gunderman.
Famed for updating and reviving the country rock jangle with shimmering vocal harmonies, the Jayhawks had largely dropped both in a search for something else on 1997’s Sound Of Lies, then rebounded strongly — if still less twangily — with the more pop/rock-oriented Smile in 2000. But that was not going to be the sound of a loose acoustic show by a Jayhawks touring ensemble that’s currently a trio — guitarist/leader Gary Louris, trusty bassist Marc Perlman, and Tim O’Reagan on percussion. So how was it?
Pretty terrific, actually.
From the opening strum and call to “Wake up!” of “Smile”, this was a sweet and engaging stroll across the spectrum of Jayhawks material, from all through their 17 years, with Louris understandably way up front now. There was jangle and pop, ancient first-album-era scraps, and grabby new songs from the album they’re about to record.
For harmonies on less dynamic but very effective versions of the early/mid-’90s standouts “Crowded In The Wings”, “Clouds” and “I’d Run Away” O’Reagan provided the scruffy second voice, sometimes shifting from drums (or bongos!) to guitar. “Clouds” in particular worked like a new number, almost conversational. It’s not the sort of Jayhawks sound fans are used to, but it gets by, or better.
Louris’s typically potent and surprising guitar strums and runs had been augmented on parts of this tour by guitar or dobro from ex-Long Ryder Stephen McCarthy, but at the two New York shows, the extra texture was provided on some numbers by mandolin, accordion and vocals from James Mastro, leader of Hoboken’s Velvets-influenced roots-rock band Health & Happiness Show (itself long-lived, till lately).
The brand new numbers, as presented, appear to show the Jayhawks heading further up the power pop road. Those who’ve figured that some of Louris’ catchiest and most straightforward numbers have shown up on Golden Smog side project discs (“Jennifer Save Me” was a standout in this show) should be pleased. New songs that may or may not wind up titled “It’s Just One Man’s Problem”, “Pretty Little Hairdo” and “Angel Eyes” are built on hooks, utterly accessible, and appear largely about being smitten. Surprising to note is a Latin tinge (Spanish, sometimes maybe Brazilian) in the sometimes Beatlesque melodies and beats that give these pop tunes a new flavor. It’s not a full-fledged Paul Simon/David Byrne excursion into somebody else’s tradition, but some new outside air is being let in, intriguingly.
By the time the encores began with a series of Louris solos, it was clear how sturdy and malleable the basic Jayhawks repertoire remains. When the tight-harmonizing Cash Brothers (who opened the show) joined in behind him, the touching result was a reminder that this band’s most lasting sounds have always been built on more than one strong vocalist. And may need to be again.