Jonathan Richman At the 9:30 Club
Look at any audience member at a Jonathan Richman show: a grown-up rocker, a teenager who likely just discovered Richman's influential early '70s proto-punk group the Modern Lovers, a suburban mom or an elementary-school-age tyke -- and there were plenty of each at the 9:30 club Friday night. Richman's charms are easily appreciated and were on full display on this evening.
The 55-year-old Richman, armed on this night with a nylon-string acoustic guitar and accompanied by his longtime drummer Tommy Larkins, gets by on a sort of sincere silliness. Songs like "Here Come the Martian Martians" and "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar" aren't meant to be taken seriously, but are catchy thanks to Richman's playful cadence and flamenco-style playing. His dance moves, mostly some kind of herky-jerky hula, can kindly be described as goofy. But there's nothing at all campy about what Richman does onstage, and the joy that radiates from him is infectious. The smiles in the crowd often turned into full-fledged guffaws, especially during "Let Her Go Into the Darkness" when in mid-song he launched into a dialogue between ex-lovers -- playing both male and female roles -- and, once he finished, repeated the same conversation in Spanish. And Italian. And Hebrew.
For all of the credit Richman gets for setting the stage for punk (and, let's be honest, emo) with the Modern Lovers some 30-plus years ago, he's proven to be just as influential in another suddenly booming genre -- parent-friendly kids' rock. He may not be intently going after that market like Dan Zanes or They Might Be Giants, and his songs may hold a few PG-13 moments, but they are lighthearted, good-natured and, as with set closer "Walter Johnson," might even teach you something. When he walked offstage to roaring applause, including from many kids at the balcony railing, it was clear that the cult of Jonathan will continue for at least another generation.
-- David Malitz
Vashti Bunyan At Rock & Roll Hotel
There's something so comforting, so deeply maternal about the music of Vashti Bunyan. Making her first Washington appearance at Rock & Roll Hotel on Friday, the 60-year-old British folk legend sang as if she were tucking her audience into bed.
Fifty thousand indie-rockers who want their mommies can't be wrong. That's how many copies of Bunyan's once-forgotten 1970 debut, "Just Another Diamond Day," have sold since it was reissued in 2000. Since then, Bunyan's impeccable ballads have been championed by a younger generation of musicians, providing new fans with a carefree escape from the chaos of wartime. Bunyan returned to the recording studio for 2005's "Lookaftering" as the newly anointed godmother of freak-folk, but her fine-spun lullabies are anything but freaky.
She performed selections from both albums Friday, with the same delicate touch -- her singing voice only a touch louder than a whisper. Seated flanked by strings, flute and piano, Bunyan barely strummed her acoustic guitar as her young backing musicians tip-toed around that hushed vocal delivery. (The most unpopular guy in the room: a bartender brashly shaking someone a martini).
Her songs touched on simple hopes, far-flung dreams, motherhood, failed loves -- even her distaste for housework. But it was one of Bunyan's most soothing numbers, "Diamond Day," that felt most bittersweet. "I wrote this song . . . when I thought everything could be really simple," she said. "I don't know if I think that anymore."