By Ray Chelstowski
On January 20, the New England Patriots took on the Kansas City Chiefs in an epic battle for the AFC crown. However, inside The Warehouse in southeastern Connecticut you wouldn’t have known that the local area NFL favorite was even on the field that night. In that packed room the focus was on one of rock 'n' roll’s most revered acts, The Jayhawks. Depending upon what you decide to call their date of origin, this Minneapolis based outfit has played together mostly on and rarely off for almost four decades. That was evident from start to finish — it was a 5 star affair. As leader Gary Louris aptly put it from the stage: the relationship they all share is a lot like family. While he referenced how that can at times be challenging, the musical language they share allows for a creative output that is crisp, clean and wonderfully alive.
The band’s brief winter tour concluded here at the Warehouse and the set list for the night didn’t vary much from what they had included in previous shows. While their most recent stops in Brooklyn found them augmented by local horns, this performance was leaner, and frankly more true to their roots. Louris was joined by longtime member Marc Perlman on bass, Karen Grotberg on keys, Tim O’Reagan on drums and John Jackson on a variety of strings.
The brilliant opening duo, Folk Uke, got things started with a musical comedy act that quickly grabbed the attention of everyone in the room. Their material is so “blue” that it doesn’t get much radio play, making their song titles and subject matter equally difficult to discuss here. But let it be known that the songs are terrifically constructed and drip with dry wit. Moreover they are delivered live with a comic timing that is reminiscent of great stand-up. These ladies (Amy Nelson/Cathy Guthrie) can also really sing. This talent then found them on stage throughout the Jayhawk’s show. There they added even more depth to what already is one of the lushest vocal groupings in popular music. All in, both bands hit the stage like a traveling minstrel show, equipped with more musical tricks than this room full of avid fans could ever hope to expect.
As far as the set list goes, longtime favorites like ”Smile” were assigned positions alongside music from their most recent record, Back Roads And Abandoned Motels, a collection of old songwriting collaborations. There with songs like “Everybody Knows,” “Come Cryin' To Me” and the exceptionally powerful track “Gonna Be A Darkness” (perhaps the finest song they have ever written/performed), The Jayhawks demonstrated how their sound and talents make every act they touch better at their craft. What also becomes clear is how these collaborations sound best when performed by Louris and company. These songs supplemented the bands deep catalog of classic material with ease and the room seemed as enthused by them as they were by the better known songs. The entire thing just fit. It was as much snug as it was muscle, and the balance the two found was what provided the real magic to the entire night.
My son was my concert companion (and photographer) and he is among the biggest Jayhawk fans that I know. In fact, their music makes a regular appearance on his radio show at Lafayette College. Together we sat after the concert with Gary, Marc and Tim and talked about the performance, the tour, and rock (and polka) in general.
GM: You closed the set with the song “Blue” from 1995’s Tomorrow The Green Grass album. I have always associated that song with The Thorns (band). What’s the story behind that tune?
GARY LOURIS: I wrote that song back in 1994 and Donnie Ienner was the head of Columbia at the time. He just loved that song and would say “I can make that a hit!” He didn’t exactly push it on The Thorns because they liked it, too. Also, I’m friends with Matthew (Sweet) and I know Shawn (Mullins) and Pete Droge. The other cool thing about that song is that the guy who did the string arrangements for our version was Paul Buckmaster who did all of the Elton John (material) and did Space Oddity for David Bowie as well.
I’m forever chasing that song. People ask: “Why don’t you write another 'Blue'?” I don’t really know how it happened but it came together so quickly. I had this riff and I went over to The Good Day Café in Minneapolis and Mark Olson helped me I think with some lyrics. That was it.
GM: If you were to create your own version of The Thorns, an all -star trio that you’d be part of, who would join you?
GL: Well, we did some shows with The Thorns. I don’t know. I like singing with women. I also like writing with (Jeff) Tweedy. I like Jeff a lot. I’d have to really think about it.
GM: It was great to see you pull out “the flying V” (guitar) tonight for a few songs?
GL: I wish I had more songs that I played that on. Tonight I played less of “The V” because “The V” usually means were playing songs from a record called Sound of Lies which is a little more distant and darker. This kind of venue seems to enjoy it more when we do more acoustic, sweeter stuff.
GM: I spoke to Mike Campbell from The Heartbreakers a few weeks ago and one of the things we discussed are guitars taken on the road, and the ones that never leave home. Is there any guitar you don’t travel with?
GL: People who usually have the most valuable guitars are people like stockbrokers and venture capitalists, people who can afford to buy great stereos and great guitars. Most musicians have shitty stereos and “OK” guitars. The guitar I have out there is a ’67 SG which I have had since 1987. It’s a part of me. But I’m not going to leave it at home. What’s it gonna do there? So I take it out with me on tour.
GM: So do you write with that guitar in mind?
GL: No, I mostly write with my acoustic. I don’t write on electric as much as I’d like to.
GM: As I review the set lists from recent shows you have worked a lot of the material from the new album into the performances. How have the crowds received it? Tonight they seemed to really enjoy every track.
GL: Well, I think that the new material is kind of in the same vein as Rainy Day Music which is also easier to translate live because it was mostly recorded live. Rainy Day Music which was from 2003 was really the first time that I sang live. This new record is kind of the same and those are always the easiest things to pull off in a concert. Certain records are more layered and there’s more going on. So I don’t know if people reacted immediately to it but it does seem like it’s grown. I can see it. People really like “Backwards Women” which I also like a lot. There are also some die-hards who are going to like "Gonna Be A Darkness." To me it’s kind of “band song.” We also arranged some horns that we used in the Brooklyn shows. It went really great. It’s only on certain occasions that we use them. We don’t travel with horns but it’s really fun.
We’ll probably start to pare back from playing some of this stuff in future shows.
GM: Did you sample anything new out on this tour that you want to take forward to the studio?
GL: No. Because right now we fly in and play these shows and it’s amazing what we can do with very little rehearsal – because we know each other so well. So we aren’t exactly experimenting right now. What we ARE going to do is go back to Minneapolis and play like a week here and a week there and get to writing. I run my iPhone recorder once in a while and pull it out when you’re fooling around on sound check. There you can sometimes grab a little something. But when we are out for three or four days you really want to make sure you play a good show. For me I’m not a very big “experimental” kind of guy. I experiment in the studio. But on the stage I’m very much into presenting the material in the most positive way. I wish I could be a little freer than I am. But I am who I am.
GM: Last question. Did you guys ever consider playing a song with Minneapolis legends, Ruth Adams & The World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band?
GL: I HAVE played with them! The drummer was like 80 (years old) and would play with that little vest. It’s sad. That place is gone now. There’s a newer version of the band, but it’s not the same. Whenever someone would visit from out of town and was looking for something to do we would send them to Nye’s. The closest thing left is The Tornado Room in Madison. Even that’s not quite the same.