Two years ago I realised an ambition of mine; I saw The Jayhawks live. The original line-up had just reformed, the itch in all good musicians finally getting the better of their history and relationship issues. The result was Mockingbird Time, an album harking back to Tomorrow The Green Grass for inspiration and making a mockery of fears it was contractual or mammon-inspired (and if it was, you can’t see the joins – Mockingbird Time is a beauty). To see Louris and Olsen harmonizing together with Grotberg sprinkling beautiful stardust over them with her wonderful keyboard motifs was something I thought I’d have to park in the ‘not my fault they split when they did’ file.
It was a good gig. But not a great one – I came out smiling but wasn’t bouncing off the walls. At their most upbeat, The Jayhawks are an irrepressible delight; at the very least you just have to tap your foot and a lot of their material makes me want to get up and dance like no-one is watching. Didn’t happen. Not their fault; they were as tight as could be imagined and it would have been a perfect memory if it wasn’t for the fact they were stalking the massive Barbican stage in front of an audience less inclined to dance and voice their appreciation than they were to ensure their half-time G&T was booked with the bar. I swear a couple of times I heard someone clear their throat mid-song. I ticked the box but felt somehow cheated. July 18 at the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire, I get another chance.
Olsen has once again taken a back seat for reasons unknown. Louris has acknowledged the fans need to stay connected and pulled the mid-era Jayhawks together again for a run through their trilogy of recently re-released and re-mastered late-career albums; 97’s Sound Of Lies, 2000s Smile and 2003s Rainy Day Music. I could wax lyrical about all three for hours and if you haven’t done yourself the courtesy of listening to the band recognised by some as the progenitors of the alt. country sound, by some called the American Beatles (I kid you not), I can only say please, please do so; the thought of hearing their catalogue for the first time all over again sends me nuts with happiness and I envy you the opportunity.
It’s a good night for those who like their Country flavoured rock, as the UK’s own The Rockingbirds are the support act, a band that’s done more than its fair share of ensuring that the Gram Parsons legacy remains strong and true in 2014. All seven of them take their stations on a stage looking somewhat smaller than it did ten minutes before and kick into With You Or Without You. They hit their straps early and there are smiles all round as the song’s groove elicits a breakout of foot-tapping in the stalls. This is classic Country songwriting, equally at home on a stage like Shepherds Bush as it is in your local spit and sawdust bar, and the Rockingbirds are old hands at delivering it. Standing At The Doorstep Of Love is warmly received by the audience, a lot of whom are clearly au fait with the band’s back catalogue.
Fanny and Up For Grabs maintain the momentum. There’s plenty of banter between songs, with each other and the crowd, before new single Till Something Better Comes Along raises the bar a little, its pop-styled sing-along chorus quickly latched onto. The band are really enjoying themselves and their happiness is infectious, carrying us into old favourite Gradually Learning, sung back at them with gusto. Penultimate song Someone Who Used To Care About Me rides in on a Motown bass riff, and then they finish with Jonathan Jonathan. There were calls for it almost before they’d plugged in, and as they leave there’s a huge roar. Nicely done, chaps.
The Jayhawks arrive on stage to a packed hall and fire off four songs without taking a breath; I’m Gonna Make You Love Me and The Man Who Loved Life get the party started, before Louris dons a flying V (a flying V? The Jayhawks? Whatever next?) for Think About It and a brilliant Trouble, the harmonies tight and spiraling into the ceiling on the ‘..blind leading the blind’, the crowd already in good singing voice. It’s the first of many moments where you can understand the Beatles comparisons. The sound is excellent, though the vocals sometimes get lost in the guitar. Grotberg’s keyboards are high in the mix and she is flawless, side on to the crowd and raising her hands above the ivories as if she’s playing at a Bach recital rather than a South London hall.
Louris’s first real comment of the evening is to make reference to the Mockingbird Time gigs. ‘This is the apology tour’ he says as they launch into his collaboration with Matthew Sweet from Rainy Day Music, Stumbling Through The Dark. It may be churlish to read too much into his introduction, but regardless, the song gets a huge cheer, as does the bubble-gum melody of follow-up Angelyne. I’ve always thought Angelyne would have gone down a storm in Hamburg circa ’61, and live the slightly faster delivery does nothing to suggest otherwise.
Six songs in, it’s clear that Louris is content to ensure that the crowd gets its fill of songs rather than chat. Without Olsen to shoulder some of the lead, Louris is the focus, but if you close your eyes you wouldn’t notice too many differences from the line-up that played the Barbican, and it’s worth noting that Olsen didn’t play on the three albums that represent the reason for the tour. Though I’m sure for some his co-writer was missed, we don’t get to choose who decides to play. Somewhere In Ohio includes the tremolo and feedback from the album cut and then the noise goes up a notch for Waiting For The Sun. I wasn’t sure if we’d get anything from the early albums, but this is simply splendid and the fans react accordingly to Grotberg’s delicious piano and the fuzz-lead solo. The reaction is not lost on Louris.
Sound Of Lies gives way to Big Star and Dying On The Vine. The gig begins to feel like a greatest hits package and all the intensity and interaction missing from the Barbican bubbles up through the stalls and into the circle, people up and dancing and cheering their favourites, one of which, Blue, matches Stumbling and Waiting for approval-by-decibels. I even catch a member of the security staff bopping at the back of the stalls. She’d earlier told me she’d never heard of The Jayhawks; her last gig was Ms Dynamite at Wembley – ah, the power of good music.
Blue is tremendous and I doubt it can be topped, but new gears are found. Grotberg throws some one-liners at the front of the crowd, Louris almost cracks a smile and pays tribute to O’Reagan for his songwriting chops. Save It For A Rainy Day’s lovely opening lyric, ‘Pretty little hair-do / Don’t do what it used to / Can’t disguise the living, all the miles you’ve been through / Looking like a train-wreck / Wearing too much make-up / The burden that you carry, more than one soul, could ever bare..’ is treated like an old friend, and then Louris defers to O’Reagan again for my all time favourite Jayhawks song, Tampa To Tulsa. It’s a hidden classic in the style of Wichita Lineman, a simple walking-pace paean to road songs and lost loves that would have made a great Sun side in the late 50s. It was beautiful – I’ll admit to having a lump in my throat.
As if we were ready for more surprises, the first of two Golden Smog numbers If Only I Had A Car becomes the prequel to the set closer, the number one single from Tomorrow The Green Grass that never was, I’d Run Away. At this point, I couldn’t write fast enough to get my thoughts onto the page, so relentless was the assault on my senses. An encore, whilst obligatory these days, was roared for and achieved. All The Right Reasons was greeted like a drink of water after 40 days in the desert. Jennifer Save Me by Golden Smog then left time for a head-rush through Tailspin and the lights were on.
For the statto’s amongst you, there were 6 apiece from Rainy Day Music and Sound Of Lies, 3 from Smile and 5 from other albums, but it wasn’t about what was and wasn’t played. It was about being thankful for the opportunity to see this gem of a band sock it to an audience the way I always knew they could, delivering matchless music and heavenly harmonies to a partisan audience in the mood to show them the love they deserve.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
The Jayhawks Live on Sound Opinions (a Chicago based Radio Show)
The Jayhawks performs classic songs from its catalog, plus new tracks from its first album in eight years.
The Jayhawks Set-list
I’m Gonna’ Make You Love Me
The Man Who Loved Life
Think About It
Stumbling Through The Dark
Somewhere In Ohio
Waiting For The Sun
Sound of Lies
Dying On The Vine
Save It For A Rainy Day
Tampa To Tulsa
If I Only Had A Car (Golden Smog)
I’d Run Away
All The Right Reasons
Jennifer Save Me (Golden Smog)
The Rockingbirds Set-List
With You Or Without You
Standing At The Doorstep Of Love
Up For Grabs
Till Something Better Comes Along
Down on Deptford Creek
Somebody Who Used To Care About Me