I was fortunate enough to land in Chicago this weekend on the same day that veteran rockers The Jayhawks arrived in town to open their fall tour. Their post-Olson albums are being reissued this year - 1997's Sound of Lies, 2000's Smile and 2003's Rainy Day Music - and as such founding band member Gary Louris has reassembled the lineup that recorded and toured behind Sound of Lies to promote the reissues.
House of Blues Chicago was actually a pretty pleasant setting for the concert. The venue was undersold and so both balconies were closed, so that only the floor was open with GA standing room only all the way to the back bar. We settled in for some drinks among the amicable patrons and an overall laid-back and friendly environment of music lovers. The opening band was inoffensive and practiced, if a little boring. Once they vacated the room, we moved amongst the crowd toward the stage.
Louris and company were set up and at their microphones by 10pm sharp after a brief introduction from a local emcee. Along with fellow founding member Marc Perlman, Gary Louris was joined by Tim O' Reagan on drums, Karen Grotberg on keys and Kraig Johnson sharing guitar duties. As the lights dimmed and the audience quieted, the drummer counted off to an amusing false start as the band found that none of the vocal mics were on. Louris laughed and began to walk offstage as Johnson make a quick joke, the sound crew huddled briefly and then back to the mics to start what would be a marathon set of two hours and nearly thirty songs spanning the entirety of the band's existence.
What struck me time and again was the way that this band successfully blended seemingly disparate values onstage - professional tightness, yearning exploration, pop harmonies and raucous, almost punk sensibility. This is not a band in their embryonic youth, nor perhaps even at the height of their "hip" prime, yet each and every song was delivered with authenticity and a clear desire to wrench something new from well-practiced compositions.
What was also clearly on display last night was a songbook of rich, textured tunes digging deep into the well of American myth and the quest for essential humanity. The band was not worse for wear by the end of their bold and lengthy set; there was no boredom nor tiredness evident. This was a band hard at work and also being worked by the songs themselves, a machine symbiotically providing energy unto its own effort.
This being my first occasion to see The Jayhawks, I will mention that there is a sort of ghostly air left by the void of Mark Olson's years-old departure. This, too, is a symbiotic issue - Olson's writing to me is something that provides an extraordinarily earthy quality to the early songs of the band. Songs like "Blue" or "Waiting On the Sun," even more country oriented material like "Sister Cry" blend the pop sensibilities and compositional genius of Louris' songsmithy and fretwork with Olson's deceivingly simple but largely genius lyricism. Again, for me personally that sort of genius is evident on songs that this band will never play like "Ann Jane".
The other side of the blade is that this band is constantly poised, direct and leaves little room for doubt. There were absolutely no songs from the most recent album, 2011's Mockingbird Time. From all appearances, the work of this band is done together and the struggle does not become internal. This unfortunately is a quality that would not be possible at the present time with Olson and Louris on the same stage, and so we must take the situation at face value and trudge ahead. And while this too may sacrifice some of the finest showcases of modern (or "alternative") country songwriting, from it we gain the strength of a band working towards a common goal.
For myself, the strength of the evening lay in the material played from 2003's Rainy Day Music. The tunes were given a vulnerable but quietly beautiful quality; the quieter tunes each given room to breathe and the heavier songs charged with focus and energy (or, as Louris put it when introducing the slow and moody "Take Me With You (When You Go)": "this song features the [unclear] Univox pedal!"). By the time the crowd-favorite "Blue" was played, Wilco multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone was invited to join the stage and, later, Johnson seated himself on the keyboard beside Grotberg to provide an ivory answer to the dual guitar attack.
After a twenty-plus song set the curtain drew to a close and, after a very brief intermission, the band reemerged to play the blues, roadhouse, "inbred version" of the tune they had wrapped up with ("Tailspin"), almost as if to say "Yeah, we did just play next to two hours... and no, playing s'more ain't no problem at all." The encore came to a close when Wilco's Pat Sansone again emerged to provide a triple guitar attack to Neil's "Sedan Delivery," which had this concertgoer pogoing wildly and creating air-guitar windmills in dangerous proximity to the older but obviously game crowd.
All in all a fantastic concert from one of the truly great American rock bands working today. Warts and all, it was a reminder of how fantastic it is to see a proficient, talented group cranking up the tour machine on the first night - and they cranked it well, and did their job right, because I am thrilled for the next opportunity to see them.
House of Blues
1. I'm Gonna Make You Love Me
2. Man Who Loved Life
3. Settled Down Like Rain
5. Think About It
6. Stumbling Through The Dark
7. Take Me With You (When You Go)
9. Bottomless Cup
10. It's Up To You
12. Save It For A Rainy Day
13. Waiting For The Sun
14. Looking Forward To Seeing You
15. Dying On The Vine
17. Blue - with Pat Sansone (Wilco/Autumn Defense)
18. Big Star
20. Tampa To Tulsa
21. I'd Run Away
23. Tailspin (inbred version)
24. Ain't No End
25. All The Right Reasons
26. Sedan Delivery - with Pat Sansone
(via The Jayhawks FanPage Board)