The Jayhawks’ Grass Is Greener
Webster Hall, New York City
Jan. 21, 2011
If you go to see enough live music, eventually you are fortunate enough to witness those moments that transcend mere entertainment and provide enlightenment about the human condition and the potential role art can and sometimes does play in our lives.
One of those moments happened Friday night at Webster Hall in New York City, as the reunited “classic” Jayhawks lineup performed their album Tomorrow The Green Grass in it’s entirety. As the band tiptoed into the tender track “Two Hearts,” seemingly the entire audience joined guitarists Mark Olson and Gary Louris as they locked voices on the song’s bridge, a blue, yearning repeated wailing of the phrase “I am lonely.” A room packed with people united in the unique opportunity to hear their favourite band play their favourite album, a spontaneous community united by a song which wrenchingly evokes a feeling of isolation and loneliness. How wonderfully, beautifully, blessedly ironic.
One wasn’t required to actually be at Webster Hall to take the full measure of the merits of Tomorrow The Green Grass. For that, luxuriate in the new, vastly expanded double disc version of the 1994 album (along with its likewise souped up predecessor Hollywood Town Hall — also new in stores). But seeing TTGG performed in full, the listener can’t help but be impressed all over again at what a remarkable feat of songwriting and music making it is. I kept waiting to catch a forgotten runt in this litter, and the closest I could get was the sincere-sounding cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s “Bad Time.” But even that track serves to underscore the classic rock lineage that informs the rest of the Jayhawks’ oeuvre. The attention paid to dense, multipart arrangements, the careful layering of guitars and keyboards and voices, the opaque poetry of their lyrics all betray The Jayhawks’ unapologetic affection for the masterclass of rock greats, at least as intense an affiliation as they could be said to have for Nashville.
And … What a team. They play with cohesion and empathy. And it needs to be said that while the spotlight naturally settles on frontman Louris and Olson, keyboardist and harmony vocalist Karen Grotberg is the straw that truly swirls the quintet’s sound into a rich, heady blend.
Without exaggeration, if the group had sauntered on, performed TTGG in toto, bowed and stalked offstage, I gather most of the crowd would have felt they’d received double their money’s worth. That they stuck around to perform a brace of deep catalog nuggets (“Darlin’ Today,” from the soundtrack to the action film Blown Away, anyone?) was gravy. And on top of that, a brace of songs from the group’s forthcoming new LP, including Olson’s evocative “Black Eyed Susan” (“This is going to be a dark road/People feel something’s been taken from them”) and Louris’ punchy “She Walks In So Many Ways.”
It is unlikely that the Jayhawks will ever top Tomorrow The Green Grass, but on the strength of tonight’s performance, I would not bet the rent against them.