Jonathan Richman sings about cold pizza, Harpo Marx and more at Outpost in the Burbs

jonathan richman review

DRIELY S.

Jonathan Richman, with percussionist Tommy Larkins.

The Outpost in the Burbs presents most of its shows on a stage at the First Congregational Church in Montclair, but Jonathan Richman just stood on the church’s floor, in front of the altar, when he performed there on Oct. 15. He did this “not to make any special point,” he told the near-capacity audience, but because the stage made the wrong sound when he stomped on it, as he sometimes does when he sings.

As we have learned over the last 50 years, Jonathan Richman always does things his own way. (The photo above with percussionist Tommy Larkins, who also performed at this show, is a publicity shot and not from the Outpost. That is because Richman prohibited all photo-taking, even by the press.)

Richman’s career started conventionally enough, with the Boston-based rock band The Modern Lovers in the early ’70s. But by the end of that decade, he had changed his approach, writing and performing simple but catchy songs, often with odd subject matter (the Outpost setlist included material about everything from cold pizza to Harpo Marx) and usually sung with sincerity and a childlike sense of wonder. And he has kept doing that ever since.

He doesn’t make children’s music, per se. He makes music that can make adults feel like children again.

He is now 71, and is still projecting just as much wide-eyed innocence as ever. (I swear, at times during the Outpost show, he reminded me of Elmo from “Sesame Street”). And while I would prefer it if he just sang and talked without the affectation, I still enjoyed the show very much.

He played for about 70 minutes — with no encore, even though audience members clapped loudly for one — accompanied only by Larkins, who added a soft rhythmic undercurrent but rarely vied with Richman’s voice and acoustic guitar for attention. Richman occasionally put his guitar down and danced to Larkins’ conga drums; he also roamed around the church, at times, and told a few jokes.

There was a bittersweet quality to songs such as “That Summer Feeling,” “This Is One Sad World” and “I Had to See the Harm I’d Done Before I Could Change,” but even these seemed more hopeful than depressing. There was only one truly dark song (“Shameless, Shameless”) and lots of feel-good anthems such as “I’m in a Dancing Mood,” “Come to Our House Party” and “He Gave Us the Wine to Taste.”

“Why criticize and waste it?/He gave us the wine to taste it,” he sang on this last song.

Richman also performed “O Mind! Let Us Go Home!,” featuring a translated poem by the 15th century Indian mystic Kabir, and frequently sang in other languages, including French, Spanish and Italian. He said that sometimes he needs to sing in a language other than English, or use a previously written poem, to express what he wants to express.

He also explained himself — when you’re as eccentric as Richman, I guess you spend a lot of time explaining yourself — when he said that he didn’t want the show to have the formality of a “respectful” concert, despite the setting. That’s not why he plays at places like the Outpost instead of at rock clubs, he said.

“Modern rock clubs have so many electronic noises that I can’t do a thing with ’em, a lot of the time. Also, after 50 years of doing this, I’m a little tired of drunks, frankly.”

He ended with his recent — but already timeless, to my mind, at least — “Cold Pizza,” with the crowd singing and clapping along.

Cold pizza, can’t beat it
Yeah, I know it’s not strictly vegan
This time, just eat it

Cold pizza, can’t top it
Yeah, I know it’s white flour
Just stop it.

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