For more than three decades, The Jayhawks have distilled their distinct brand of Americana music — blending country, folk, bar-band rock ‘n roll and, sometimes, a little jangly pop — into a rich catalog of mournful laments, catchy tunes and stomping good times. And this unique brew made for a perfectly invigorating evening Oct. 12 at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair.
Fronted by Gary Louris, their primary songwriter and lead guitarist, the band relied on an easy-going delivery, impeccable harmonies and a playful sense of experimentation to regale a sold-out crowd of 800 people, who packed a historic Congregational Church that — thanks to wonderful acoustics and its intimate setting — also happens to be one of the finest concert venues in the state.
That this Midwestern band drew such devotion is hardly surprising. Despite a lack of recognizable radio hits – a notion that has diminished over time as the Internet overhauls the music business — The Jayhawks have become a favorite road act thanks to a string of well-received albums and a knack for churning out memorable, if often lonesome songs.
This was clear from the opening moments when the band played one of their most buoyant numbers, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” a fervent ode to determination from their Smile album, which was released in 2000. (Unfortunately, they did not play the title track, an uplifting number that argues the glass of life is always half full, which they have featured at other shows on this tour).
The set was peppered with such upbeat tracks, notably “Blue,” a fan favorite dating back to 1995 that has an unforgettable melody and has been the only song to receive notable airplay in the band’s history. Another was “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces,” a confused plea to save a relationship that was on their 2016 release, Paging Mr. Proust, which was co-produced by Peter Buck of REM fame.
Throughout the evening, they veered between sunshine pop, quiet folk and roots rock, diving back to one of their earliest compositions, “Ain’t No End,” about a yearning to recast life, to several tracks off their newest album, Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, a collection of songs Louris wrote with others, such as Jakob Dylan of The Wallflowers and Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks, but had never recorded with The Jayhawks.
And in contrast to some of their other shows I’ve seen recently, there was more onstage banter, especially from Louris, who enjoyed quizzing his bandmates on their first public performances, most of which supposedly took place in church or synagogue youth groups. However, Tim O’Reagan, the drummer and sometimes vocalist, drew laughs when he demurred and explained that, “I’m sorry. I don’t have an answer. I’m very high right now.”
The band finished with a four-song encore that included a sparkling version of the Billy Walker honky tonk chestnut, “Down to My Last Cigarette,” which pianist Karen Grotberg belted out with aplomb. And they closed the night with “Until You Came Along,” a song by Golden Smog, a celebrated 1990s side project that featured Louris, Jayhawks bassist Marc Perlman and members of Soul Asylum and The Replacements, among others, at various times.
What makes most any Jayhawks show so enjoyable is the band’s ability to toggle back and forth between songs that exude decades-old musical influences and a fresh, edgy sound. This is the sort of talent, in fact, that prompted Ray Davies, the prime mover in The Kinks, to tap the band to back him up on his two recent Americana albums.
After all these years, The Jayhawks may not be superstars, but they remain a band to see, and Friday night was no exception.
Here is the setlist and, below it, some videos from the show.
“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”
“Ain’t No End”
“Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces”
“Waiting for the Sun”
“What Led Me to This Town”
“Tampa to Tulsa”
“Stumbling Through the Dark”
“I’d Run Away”
“Lovers of the Sun”
“Come Cryin’ to Me”
“A Break in the Clouds”
“Need You Tonight”
“All the Right Reasons”
“Gonna Be a Darkness”
“Carry You to Safety”
“I’m Down to My Last Cigarette”
“Until You Came Along”
The Jayhawks will perform at Brooklyn Bowl, Jan. 18-19 at 8 p.m. Visit brooklynbowl.com.