Jonathan Richman

Back in the mid-'70s, proto-punk troubadour Jonathan Richman might have reminded you of that eccentric dude from your English-lit class. The songs he wrote for his young band, the Modern Lovers, were bright and bittersweet, left-field and lovable. If everyone's career goals included writing heartfelt ditties about snowmen, unrequited love and the devastating sex appeal of cubist painters, he would have been voted "Most Likely to Succeed."

Zoom ahead 30 years, and Richman is more like your wacky uncle. Richman is still as amiable as ever -- but today you'd probably vote him "Most Likely to Cut Loose With Some Embarrassing Dance Moves at Your Sister's Wedding Reception."

But don't let that suggest that the years haven't been kind to the 54-year-old songwriter. His 80 minutes onstage at the 9:30 club Monday prove Richman still knows how to channel the boyish charms and goofy humor that helped establish his cult-following three decades ago.

Richman jerked and twitched along to the steady pitter-pat of drummer Tommy Larkin, brushing chords off his nylon-string guitar as he wore a doe-eyed smile. His erratic dance moves -- worthy of the wackiest of uncles -- got as many laughs from the crowd as the offbeat stories told through his songs. More recent fare like the spoofy travelogue "Nineteen in Naples" earned smiles and chuckles, while Modern Lovers-era classics like "Pablo Picasso" scored outright guffaws. Richman may have basked in the crowd's roar by set's end, but it's clear that he's still just playing for laughs.

-- Chris Richards

Loudon Wainwright III

According to the menu at the Rams Head on Monday night, a "Loudon Punch" is Bacardi rum, Malibu, pineapple juice, cranberry juice and grenadine.

Fans of Loudon Wainwright III know better: The "Loudon punch" is that emotional feint that leaves the listener wondering whether to laugh or cry.

"We'll be talking a lot about death and decay tonight," the 57-year-old bard of WASPdom said before mugging his way through "The Morgue," a hillbilly song about the death of love ("Seeing you so blue gave me a start"). He paired a couple of songs about fatherhood to ingenious effect: "Bein' a Dad" ("You gotta shoe 'em and clothe 'em / And try not to loathe 'em") was followed by its aftermath, "When You Leave." In the latter song, Wainwright tongue-waggled and occasionally caterwauled his way through a sad truth: "Those you left don't want you back."

Sometimes his purpose was muddled: "Here Come the Choppers" drew easy laughs from name-checks of Los Angeles landmarks but probably included some social commentary underneath the chuckles. At other times the satire was clearer, as in a new song on airport security -- for which Wainwright unfurled a three-page cheat sheet. "Just shut up and take off those shoes," he sang, "for our freedom."

Wainwright moved from his skillfully deployed, if waywardly tuned, acoustic guitar to piano for the poignant, economical "Red Guitar." He even played and celebrated the ukulele: A brisk swing number -- complete with some sloppy scat singing -- declared "Four strings of nylon / Always put a smile on."

When Wainwright praised the uke's value for "a lullaby or ditty / when you're feeling [unhappy]," he made the breadth of emotional experience fairly clear.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Francois-Frederic Guy

If there was ever a time when performer and instrument were one, it was Monday night at the French Embassy. Pianist Francois-Frederic Guy played Beethoven's soul-stirring "Pathetique" and raging "Waldstein" sonatas, Liszt's spellbinding "Benediction de Dieu Dans la Solitude" and Robert Schumann's "Geistervariationen," composed just before a suicidal jump into the Rhine River.

Words offer pale substitutes for an evening that this reviewer won't easily forget. From start to finish, Guy summoned the Steinway to speak for itself, drawing out the sound from within the piano rather than imposing himself on the instrument.

In the "Pathetique," one felt the pianist's large-scale approach, the languid yet wrenching opening intoned with fingers delving deep into tone-color, sustaining its sonic depth. The Allegro whirled on its tumultuous way, while the Adagio was pondered and tenderly caressed, leading to a finale more fiendish than playful.

Liszt's "Benediction" was sheer revelation, the music's shimmering, airy textures outlined with the delicacy that Monet conveyed in his pink and blue views of the Rouen Cathedral.

Guy turned Schumann's wretched suffering into a paean of consolation. Even in the seething stretches, the pianist never let Schumann's string of variations lose their rapturous theme. Beethoven's "Waldstein" was given an epic scope, the Allegro's chief theme evolving into conflicting masses of sounds wrestling in titanic fury -- and written while he was also composing the "Eroica" Symphony. Guy's observance of the composer's momentous silences made the performance all the more breathtaking.

-- Cecelia Porter