Jonathan Richman couldn't stay on key for two straight measures at the Cellar Door last night. His own guitar and sax accompaniment was a very on-and-off affair. He sang about mosquitoes, dinosaurs and the ice-cream man. Nevertheless, it was one of the most compelling shows by a solo performer in Washington this year.
Last night Richman was proof positive that in rock 'n' roll, genuine emotion can overcome technical shortcomings. Richman's lack of technical skills was staggering. But his childish delight in the mundane and his adolescent yearning for happiness were so convincing that they transcended technical questions. By assuming the odd persona of the troubadou-naif , the idiot savant, the rock 'n' roll chronicler of innocence unlost, he made everything sound too original to ever be hackneyed.
Actually, Richman is very talented -- but as a songwriter and actor, not as a musician. On "Rockin' Rockin' Leprechauns," he alternated a capella verses and tenor sax phrases. He kicked his cowboy boots against the floor for the rhythm. He didn't sing the melody so much as he hinted at it. He also hinted at the backing vocals and paused for the guitar parts, prompting the listener to imagine an entire band arrangement while Richman stood alone on stage.
The lyrics were about leprechauns who had come back to the world just for rock 'n' roll. Delivered with the unwavering sincerity they required, the verses epitomized Richman's theme of recapturing and maintaining a childish grace through a total devotion to songs.That's what Richman accomplished on new songs like "Stop This Car, I'm Getting Out," and old songs like "Summer Morning." That's what he'll try to pull off again at the Cellar Door tonight.