On their last couple of records, the Jayhawks seemed intent on broadening their audience and pursuing a more accessible power-pop sound. Choosing prettiness over grittiness might be a good career move, but many longtime fans, already disappointed about the departure of Mark Olson in 1995 to pursue a solo career, worried about the band's path.
With the just-released "Rainy Day Music," the Jayhawks have returned to their roots-rock roots, and during the group's mostly acoustic show at the Birchmere on Tuesday night, it certainly sounded like the right decision. The core of the group is just three now: guitarist and lead singer Gary Louris; drummer, guitarist and singer Tim O'Reagan; and bassist Marc Perlman. For this show they received some lovely guitar help from Richmond's Steven McCarthy and from opener Tim Easton, who joined them for a few songs.
There was a bare-bones beauty to the set as the group revisited old gems like "Five Cups of Coffee" and "Settled Down Like Rain" from the albums "Blue Earth" and "Hollywood Town Hall." Brand-new songs "Angelyne" and the Dylanesque "Tailspin" held up well in comparison. Louris, who has a sad sweet voice that sounds like it's been on the wrong end of too many goodbyes, dedicated "Tailspin" to "anyone whose life is just going down the tubes." But for all of the bummed-out songs, this wasn't a bummed-out show. Louris joked often with the crowd and, before playing the single "Save It for a Rainy Day," he encouraged fans to cheer as if they had recognized the song as a radio staple. Clearly, someone must have clued him in to the dismal state of Washington radio. So maybe the Jayhawks should take solace that their new songs aren't being played here.
-- Joe Heim