Mark Olson (and Friends) – 400 Bar (Minneapolis, MN)
The sight of Gary Louris’ beloved Gibson SG guitar sitting on the stage of the 400 Bar in Minneapolis before a scheduled New Year’s Eve solo show by Mark Olson, his former Jayhawks partner, seemed to confirm the rumors of a “Jayhawks reunion” that had been running rampant ever since an “act of plumbing” forced Louris to return early from a vacation in Spain. A few days earlier on a Minneapolis radio station, Olson had essentially thrown gas on the fire when he responded to a question about the rumors by saying that “calls have been made.”
While many assumed that Louris would sit in with Olson for a few songs — particularly since the two had recently announced plans to tour together in early 2005 — I don’t think anyone was prepared to see Olson, Louris and Jayhawks drummer Tim O’Reagan all onstage right from the get-go. As they launched into “Poor GW” from Olson’s recent Political Manifest album, the assembled faithful appeared to be in a state of delirium — this was the first time Olson and Louris had appeared on stage together since October 1995. Now here they were, back at the place where they had played some of their very first gigs, when the “stage” consisted of a piece of plywood squeezed in by the front door.
After a few more songs, longtime Jayhawks bassist Marc Perlman, who was clearly visible milling around in the crowd of a couple hundred, joined the festivities. Earlier, Olson had promised that when Perlman showed up they were going to do “Blue”, and he was good to his word. Now it was a full-on reunion, a scenario that once seemed unlikely given the divergent paths Olson and Louris had traveled over the last decade. Ardent fans have long debated the merits of the post-Olson Jayhawks; for at least this moment, all that hoo-hah seemed like so much water under the bridge.
Aside from a healthy dose of Olson’s solo material — varying wildly from quaint Creekdippers ditties to harshly unsubtle political diatribes — much of the 2-hour-plus show consisted of more vintage Jayhawks material than even the most optimistic fan could’ve hoped for. Staples such as “Waiting For The Sun”, “Martin’s Song” and “Two Angels” were mingled in with songs dating all the way back to the rare 1986 self-titled debut LP (“King Of Kings”, “Six Pack On The Dashboard”).
The Jayhawks were also always superb cover artists (a skill Louris refined to perfection in Golden Smog), and this night certainly didn’t disappoint in that respect. Songs from Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard were mixed in with chestnuts learned off of albums by Doug Sahm and the International Submarine Band.
It would be somewhat of an exaggeration to say the boys were in tip-top form, although the vaunted Louris/Olson harmonies didn’t seem any worse for wear. Everybody seemed to be in a great mood; friendly banter was in abundance as the crowd yelled out numerous requests and, in many cases, the band obliged without much thought. The night had a ragged vibe more indicative of the Creekdippers’ live shows than of the fine-tuned professionalism that has marked the post-Olson Jayhawks.
Louris handled nearly all of the lead guitar duties while Olson bounced around between bass, piano, guitar and dulcimer. Perlman was on stage about half of the time, mostly for the Jayhawks songs. O’Reagan, a greatly underrated singer, earned bonus points on several occasions by stepping up to the plate when lyrics were forgotten. The only “new” Louris/Olson song performed was “Say You’ll Be Mine” (from Olson’s 2002 disc December’s Child).
The night ended with a nice version of “Crowded In The Wings”, one of the Jayhawks’ very best songs, and one that has continued to shine through every incarnation of the band. It was a fitting conclusion to an event that wasn’t even supposed to happen.