The Jayhawks, Williamsburg Park, Brooklyn, NY – 9/15
Following a handful of reunion shows in 2010, The Jayhawks’ new album and consistent touring since has made their reunion feel more permanent, and on a crisp fall night in Brooklyn, the band’s purely Minnesotan country rock found them still sounding in their prime. The recent reunion marks the return of founding member Mark Olson who departed after 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, right as they were on the verge of breaking through to major success. With the vocal harmonies of Olson and co-leader Gary Louris back in the fold, The Jayhawks sound like a revitalized band, balancing perfectly executed classics with strong new material.
Opening with “Wichita” from the band’s 1992 Hollywood Town Hall, Olson’s breezy vocals led the way while Louris joined in for harmonies and also contributed searing, snarling guitar solos. Louris’ microphone was a bit lost in the mix for the first few songs of the night, which plagued an otherwise flawless take on “Red’s Song.” But the issue was fixed soon enough, and by the time they dipped into their classic “Blue,” his vocals were loud and clear and blending perfectly with Olson’s on that spine-tingling, heavenly bridge.
The band followed “Blue” with “Tiny Arrows, a song from their new album Mockingbird Time. Though a new song could have killed the energy after a sing-along hit, “Tiny Arrows” was a highlight of the night with nature-rich lyrical imagery, trademark harmonies, and outstanding guitar work from Louris (and even a nifty acoustic solo from Olson). Performing five songs from Mockingbird Time, The Jayhawks displayed strong but well justified confidence in their new material.
Of course the band also gave the crowd the mandatory nineties gems, following “Tiny Arrows” with a rousing take on “I’d Run Away.” They performed one of Gary Louris’ catchiest tunes with a heavier rock edge live, with Louris’ piercing string bends and soaring vocals leading the way. Though The Jayhawks became Louris’ band with Olson’s 1995 departure, and soldiered on with him at the helm until 2003, they mostly avoided material from that era. The lone exceptions were two songs beautifully sung by their underrated drummer, Tim O’Reagan. It’s easy to be overshadowed as a singer in a band with Mark Olson and Gary Louris, but “Angelyne” and “Tampa To Tulsa” found O’Reagan stealing the spotlight. The mournful, dusty country ballad “Tampa To Tulsa” was particularly chilling, and kicked off the encore by sending the crowd into a stunned silence.
After the stirring ballad, The Jayhawks loosened things up with Mark Olson shedding his guitar and lightheartedly dancing and clowning around the stage while singing “How Can I Send Tonight,” looking like the perfectly awkward Minnesotan in a brown shirt and hideously clashing brown sweater vest. After the humorous but slightly odd Olsen showcase, an energetic take on “Waiting For The Sun” fired the crowd back up, and a Grand Funk Railroad cover sent everyone home happy.
With the Americana revival occurring across the country right now, it’s easy to forget that just about no one was making music like The Jayhawks harmony driven, catchy roots rock during the grunge-mania of the early nineties. Along with Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown, The Jayhawks are fathers of today’s burgeoning country rock scene, and with the classic lineup together again, continue to craft songs with shimmering harmonies, just the right amount of Minnesota twang, and picture-perfect, soaring bridges and choruses that won’t leave your head.