"There I was in Harvard Square," began Jonathan Richman at Off Broadway last night. There we were as well, a respectable crowd, paying our respects to one of the oddest, strangely charismatic performers in don't-call-it-rock-&-roll, bopping down the bizzaro, bohemian sidewalks with him.
Oblivious to the posted 8 p.m. start time, Richman scampered on stage closer to 8:40 p.m., wearing a loose, goldenrod dress shirt, sporting a graying goatee and holding a big, old nylon-string guitar. His drummer, Tommy Larkins, sat down to a tiny kit of hi-hat and congas. Richman would never plug in; instead he strummed and tickled his wide-necked guitar, fiddled with the microphone and stared -- with haggard, insomniac eyes -- down and through and past the squeezed-to-the-front crowd.
Richman has a newish record out, O Moon, Queen of Night and Earth, and he seemed intent on reminding the audience that he may be supremely nostalgic but he's no nostalgia act - even as "I Was Dancing In the Lesbian Bar" was the night's biggest sing-along and happiest performance. What kind of act he is, no one can really say. Richman is simply and genuinely a sentimental eccentric. Whether singing "Let Her Go Into the Darkness" or showing off his beautiful Italian on "We'll Be the Noise, We'll Be the Scandal" and his envious French on "Sa Voix M'attise," Richman is always and forever in his own world. He dances apoplectically on the side of the stage like (emphasis on like) no one is watching and shakes sleigh bells like Larkins isn't doing his damnedest to keep his leader on track.
Midway through the set he excused himself, explaining that he'd caught a touch of flu in Martha, Texas, and dashed backstage for some garlic to clear his head. This let Larkins stretch out on the congas and play with brushes, which is less disturbing than it sounds. The hour and 15 minute-or-so set privileged rhythms, punkish-Gypsy King grooves, Italian wedding dance folk and charming jazz. Richman is a good, playful guitarist, and some of the evening's most memorably moments of pure music came in quiet little runs on the nylon strings; you could tell Jonathan is always listening.
It's those moments that redeem the strained attempts at graffiti profundity - if you believe the songwriter, the meaning of life is either suffering or a "search for the obscure" - and make even post-encore quotations of bad poets tolerable. Richman really does believe in his own cultivated amateurism, so much so that it may no longer be a brilliant put-on. When he delivers a wicked, little, self-directed satire like "My Affected Accent" or revels in the gorgeous melody of "Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild," he always sounds like he's sharing what matters to him, skeptics be damned. Fair enough. His joy in performance is ours as well.