The Jayhawks, Cash Brothers, Great American Music Hall, San Francisco- 4/16
Walking through the San Francisco rain down O’Farrell Street, I realized it had been too long since I’d last seen the Jayhawks. Because of that I had no real idea what an acoustic evening with them would hold. Once we settled into the balcony of the wonderful Great American Music Hall I just relaxed and waited for what the night might bring. That turned out to be not one but two groups who write songs of genuine substance, the kind of music that sticks to the ribs of the mind and nourishes one’s life.
I hadn’t a clue about the Cash Brothers before the two of them stepped on the stage. They had the easy feel of two guys who spend a lot of time woodshedding their music. I could almost hear the creak of back porches and tiny rooms where they’d honed their sound. Song after song impressed me. Much of their music is earnest and painfully sincere which instantly wins points with me. They mix in enough jangle and pop to leaven the whole thing into a sound that evokes everyone from Nick Lowe to the Everly Brothers to fellow unsung Canadians the Grapes of Wrath, all without ever sounding derivative. Not long after they played a stunner called “Guitar Strings and Foolish Things” I popped down to the merch table to pick up their latest CD, How Was Tomorrow, for my sweetie, who attended this show as a birthday night out. The often loud, rude San Francisco attitude I often see directed towards opening acts prevailed in much of the Hall but the Brothers never let that detract from their performance. Those that had the patience to really listen to them got a true treat. They made at least two new fans on this rainy night, that’s for sure.
Short break and then the current trio of fellows who make up the Jayhawks ambled onto the stage. Gary Louris, Marc Perlman and Tim O’Reagan described this tour later as “3 guys and an amp. Very manly,” and then with a laugh, “Very cheap.” Louris played acoustic guitar with a nifty range of effects to add color to the palette and often put on the customary Bob Dylan style harmonica rig. O’Reagan sang the harmonies and not a few leads while switching between a stripped down trap drum set and guitar. Perlman kept the low end covered on electric bass and added some wonderful flourish on bazouki (a string instrument with a mandolin like tone) on many songs. For so few folks on stage they made a full, lush sound that lacked nothing. It brought to mind the incredible Gov’t Mule acoustic shows of 1999 & 2000.
The opener, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” gained a lot in the stripped down arrangement. The last Jayhawks studio release, Smile, had a veneer of production that hid many of the charms of the songs on it. At the Music Hall all that disappeared. This was a band exploring its catalog with subtlety and honesty and grace. After only a few numbers I was struck by what a dense, satisfying song cycle had emerged in the 17 years the Minneapolis band had been active. There are few groups out there than can boast such consistent quality or such a high level of craftsmanship. And there’s the rub.
In 2002, the Jayhawks have no official webpage to call their own, no label support to speak of and a complete lack of regular radio play. How is it a band that produces this much beautiful music isn’t a household name? Despite a loyal fan following, a mainstream breakthrough remains elusive. I was a little shocked that the merchandise table had more items for the Cash Brothers than for the headliner. Only two simple Jayhawks T-shirts. No CD’s, no stickers, nothing. I wondered how this had happened, how the hot ticket critic’s darlings of Tomorrow The Green Grass find themselves at this particular crossroads.
But all that’s just speculation on the fringes of what really matters, the music. Without a doubt, the performance at the Great American ranks as one of the finest I’ve witnessed. Ever. Taken down to the bare bones, every song shown brightly. Each note rang out clear. The care & invention in the arrangements was hugely apparent. There’s obvious pleasure for all three men I saw on that small stage in just spending time with their body of work. There’s a maturity and confidence to the new material both from Louris and increasingly important songwriters O’Reagan and Perlman. They know they are good and there’s no shame in that. Nearly 20 years of roadwork and fine tuning pays off in dividends like these. The harmonies between O’Reagan and Louris have matured into a holy sound, rough around the edges and achingly pretty in others.
Many moments stood out over the 2 hour show. The sad, slow version of “What Led Me To This Town” was one highlight, to be sure. Tim stumbled slightly on the opening of “Bottomless Cup” and then soared by the time he hit the chorus. Gary’s introduction to the new song that didn’t get picked up for The Rookie film soundtrack was funny and real because he admitted being bitter about it. Seriously dug how The stirring solo version of “Waiting For The Sun” brought that gem into a new light. It’s difficult to hear the line, “It’s hard to sing with someone who won’t sing with you,” without thinking of former bandmate Mark Olson (now a solo artist and an Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dipper with wife Victoria Williams). On “The Man Who Loved Life,” Louris points out, “This travelling band was not well received.” On a stormy April night in San Francisco they were welcomed with open arms and wild applause. The Jayhawks are a gift we listeners keep getting year after year.