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Jonathan Richman Takes the Good With the Bad, Dances Like a Kook at Brooklyn’s Bell House

Jonathan Richman
NBC

Days like yesterday (Feb. 19) are when we need Jonathan Richman most. The singing, dancing, mugging former Modern Lover and weirdly endearing rock ‘n’ roll curio stopped at Brooklyn’s Bell House for the first of two shows following a day of icky drizzle and low-40 temps: the polar — if not quite polar — opposite of his ever-sunny songwriting.

After a few bars of ‘Egyptian Reggae,’ one of his oldest and best-loved tunes, Richman segued into ‘That Summer Feeling.’ “That smell of green grass / It almost hurts, there’s so much drama,” he sang, twirling a strapless acoustic guitar and flashing the big-kid grin he’d wear for much of his hour-long Bell House set. From ‘Summer,’ it was a natural jump to ‘Springtime In New York,’ a song about 19th century buildings being torn down, couples fighting on 1st Avenue and the unlikely loveliness of it all.

Both ‘Summer’ and ‘Springtime’ will sound great in two months, when the leaves are on the trees and young lovers really are having their spats outdoors, but both work even better as winter songs. They’re about anticipating and romanticizing the good things in life while refusing to ignore the bad. They’re quintessential Richman, in other words, and they set the tone for much of what followed.

Perhaps best known for his role as the one-man Greek chorus in ‘Something About Mary’ — which is a shame, given his rich catalog and proto-punk bona fides — Richman is the definition of a cult artist: Tom Waits meets Mr. Rogers, with some Lou Reed, Sam Cooke and Latin lounge lizard thrown in like handfuls of Dunkin’ Donuts sprinkles.

Tuesday night’s audience stood rapt and reverent, barely shuffling or crinkling their Six Point Lager cans, lest they miss a second of the Massachusetts native’s upbeat, childlike, secretly profound and seemingly sincere odes to Dutch masters (‘No One Was Like Vermeer’), cosmetics-free elegance (‘Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild’), the Rolling Stones (‘Keith Richards’) and parties where everyone’s welcome (‘La Fiesta is Para Todos’). The tunes bled together into a kind of medley, with Richman occasionally ditching his instrument and busting herky-jerky lover-man dance moves to drummer Tommy Larkin’s beats.

Clearly fascinated by foreign languages, he sang ‘La Fiesta’ in English, Italian, Spanish and even Hebrew, underscoring the inclusiveness of the lyric. (Drop this guy off in Gaza with a nylon-string guitar and bag of Doritos, and he’ll deliver what no American president in the last half-century has managed.)

Richman ended with ‘As My Mother Lay Lying,’ a song about exactly what the title suggests. In anyone else’s hands, it would have been an absolute soul-crusher, a somber end to an otherwise cheerful evening. But Richman plays it peaceful and comforting, viewing death as yet another instance of the world revealing her tricks, breaking your heart while teaching you lessons.

“There’s a lot of darkness,” he said, just before waving farewell and sending fans back out into the chilly night. “May we find the beauty.”

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