Blue Lights Shining: The Jayhawks

Rockefeller Music Hall, Oslo, 15.03.04

Hearing the Jayhawks play live is like coming in from the cold, or curling up in bed in an old oversized sweater that, with any luck, still smells like someone you used to know. Most of all, it’s like seeing an old friend who cheers you up.

Having missed the Jayhawks on several occasions during my time in the states, I was thrilled to get the chance yet again. This time, I would not be denied. Rockefeller Music Hall is one of my favourite stages in the world. (Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence being another.) Dark and smoked-out, nicotine stains on the walls and beer stains on the ground: the decades of concerts it’s hosted have left their marks. Seeing a show there is like coming home. As it so happens, it’s become a favourite of many bands from the Big World Beyond as well. Oslo has in fact become a reasonably cool place to live, if you can afford to. I always knew that, of course, but I’m happy that you can always see the big acts here, but moreover the small acts and even the tiny acts. (In a month, Jonathan Richman swings by. He helped save my sanity in New Brunswick, NJ. I can’t wait.)

The room was nearly sold out, and after an opening act that sounded more like acoustic California indie rock than country, the Jayhawks sauntered, if not quite swaggered, on. The band seemed in good spirits and opened with a no-nonsense Stumbling Through the Dark that set the tune nicely for the rest of the evening: Travel-weary and whisky-soaked moments of dusty beauty. Such is the sound of the Jayhawks.

The Jayhawks are not a sexy band by any measure. Tall and gangly, vocalist Gary Louris looked more like a teacher, possibly writer, in his suit than a proper rock star. But then, again, who wants to be a rock star these days? Bassist Marc Perlman looks as if he’d be just as happy pumping gas as to be on a stage, but did admittedly look damn cool with a lit cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, the man himself facing the huge bass amplifier behind him.

It’s sad to think that a band like the Jayhawks never made it big, and at this point, probably never will. Is it their lack of rock glitz? Or is it simply bad luck? It’s certainly not due to songs or skill or enthusiasm. They’ve become one of those “almost-bigs” like Richard Thompson or Neil Finn or any of those other occupants of some little niche. I always thought they were better than fellow alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo, but I’ve actually been yelled at over this, so I’m not making any categorical statements here. In a nice fan moment, Gary Louris actually said “This is for Asbjørn; he asked on the street if we could play this…” and then What Led Me To This Town flowed from the speakers. They might not be so sexy, but they seem to like the fans and the fans love them back for it.

“So many songs…so many songs” mumbled Gary Louris at one point, as they pondered what tune to play next. So many songs indeed: I noticed that when playing 20 or so songs in one go, the songs did blend together a bit. But at the same time, their craft is so good, it doesn’t really matter. They didn’t do The Man Who Loved Life, but I did get Blue so I have no complaints. A number by the Golden Smog also popped up at one point, in case you were wondering. The Jayhawks write standards, more than anything. It’s not as easy as it looks, writing a verse and a chorus and a middle eight. But that’s what the Jayhawks do, and it’s a real feat. A few chords and endless invention.

For their final number, they played a song I didn’t recognize, but approaching the break, they took it to a rockier place…long solos, avant-garde wailing, etc. It was interesting to hear the band going beyond their expected parameters, and convincingly so. But all good things come to an end and so did this evening and the lights went up, and beers were finished and cigarettes stubbed out. After the show was over, I found it had started raining. It was a cold rain, the early spring kind that feels tired and melancholy and somehow hurried. In fact, just the kind of rain that you’d find in a song by the Jayhawks.

16.03.2004 • Permalink