Friday, March 09, 2012

Jonathan Richman at the Union Chapel

I mentioned on twitter that I was going up to that there London to see Jonathan Richman in concert. “Jammy git. Have a blast.” Came a reply. There was nothing jammy about it. The day came about after several months of meticulous planning.

Graham, an old college friend of mine and the bloke I went to see Jonathan Richman with last time, had bought tickets on-line to see somebody somewhere in the past. The agency has been sending him spammails ever since advertising up-and-coming gigs. Usually he deletes them unopened. This time he glanced at it and halfway down the list the name Jonathan Richman appeared. He contacted me: “fancy it?”… and so a nascent plan was born.

It took a bit of timetabling. A lack of confirmable detail in our busy schedules meant that Plan A (seeing Richman in Cardiff) was junked and Plan B (Union Chapel, Islington) was settled on. I booked the tickets back in December of last year and it was all systems hang around for months on end as we waited for the day to arrive.


The Union Chapel gig was timed perfectly for me. Firstly it was on a Friday and secondly it was a day that was clear at work. I didn’t even need to book a day’s leave! All was tickety-boo but with about a month to go before the big day something cropped up at work that threatened to cock everything up. Some negotiation followed and happy compromise was reached: I would work in the morning, which entailed going to Exeter with a colleague after which I would drop her off at Exeter St David’s and our paths would diverge: hers taking her back to Plymouth on the train and me on my way up the road.

Which worked out rather wonderfully and bestowed upon me the added advantage of hitting the road a little earlier than I expected and starting 50 miles closer to my intermediate destination too. The planned rendezvous, Chez Graham in Cheltenham, at 1500 was likely to be easily achieved. It was. I was there at about 1330…


Graham wasn’t there. Luckily he lives next door, almost, to a pub so I went in, had a beer, and read the paper to wile a bit of time away. Some time passed and I had another beer. I was actually nearing the bottom of my third when he turned up and bought me a fourth… It’s a good job he turned up when he did because I was well on the way to getting bladdered!

His local pub, The Hop Pole, is not an inspiring establishment despite apparently being something of a historic building.


The beer was OK if uninspiring (I did not persevere to a second pint of IPA; the Guinness was much more agreeable) but there was barely a soul in there. The newspaper could only entertain for so long… Boredom can often be an inspiration though. As I cast my eye around the establishment it alighted upon the wall-mounted jukebox. “I wonder if there is any Jonathan Richman on it?” I mused. There was! (Praise be to internet connected juke boxes!) So with no further ado the two old boys checking out the horse racing form in The Sun, I was in Cheltenham after all, the old battle-axe behind the bar and I listened either excitedly, in my case, or begrudgingly, in theirs, to both Roadrunner and Egyptian Reggae (there wasn’t that much Modern Love to choose from ~ but frankly I was delighted that there was any at all!). Twice. To be honest I don’t think my co-drinkers were terribly enamoured to be sharing their bar with a Jonathan Richman fan but then again I wasn’t that chuffed to be drinking with Sun readers so it cuts both ways.

And soon we were off. Graham drove down to London which was both a) The Plan all along and b) just as well bearing in mind the fact that I had necked four lunchtime pints. Friday afternoon/evening is never a good time to be travelling anywhere and in the south east of England this is doubly true but we made good time. Oxford came and went and the M40 delivered us into The Smoke without fuss. At which point we slowed to a very slow dawdle for what seemed like hours as we headed up to Islington.

Our fears of being late were unfounded though. The gig was due to start at 1930 and it was pretty much on the dot that my phone’s Satnav Man delivered us to our destination. Then, to our delight, we found a free, in both senses, parking space about 30 yards from the entrance. Out we got and joined the queue which moved with efficient, if unhurried, grace. We were there!


IMGP0258But what of “there”? Neither of us had any preconceptions about the venue. There was an obvious clue in the name (“Union Chapel”) but it had passed me by and to our great, if rather naiive, surprise it turned out to be old church! Not just any church, though. It was quite a grand church complete with tower, gothic arches, pews, a pulpit, all sorts of internal nooks and crannies and with the altar serving as the stage. Our tickets were checked on entry by extremely affable and competent staff who told us where the various facilities on offer were situated. “There is a bar and restaurant upstairs” was the bit that really grabbed my attention as by this stage my 6 a.m. Weetabix was but a distant, fond memory. And so we went up to get something to eat.

Calling it a “restaurant” is over-egging the pudding a little. In essence it was a makeshift canteen serving food off trestle tables but that food was pretty good. I had casseroled chicken with savoury rice and a slice of mushroom pizza. If ever you get to go there don't hesitate to get something to eat. The scran was really very good and very reasonably priced. Another pint of beer (Hobgoblin) was supped to wash it all down.

The Union Chapel is still a working church providing all sorts of support to the local community and is a fine concert venue able to accomodate around 800 people. Go there. See somebody. It's a wonderful place.


After a trip to the loo we took to our pew in the upper circle (the seats in the stalls had all filled by now) and awaited the show. From our pew the chapel’s architectural magnificence was all too apparent. Ornate carved support pillars, arched gateways everywhere and round and/or stained-glass windows abounded. There was absolutely nothing modern about the place at all. The experience was very much like a trip back In time.

In fact it really was like a trip back I time. Not only because of the age and timeless feel of the building but because of its character. I was plunged back into memories of the many rock discos in churchy places (Stoke Damerel Church Hall, Emmanuel Church, the Abbey Hall… especially the Abbey Hall!) that I had gone to as a teenager in the days when I was too young to get into anywhere licensed. Grown-ups take so much for granted. Does everybody have their own memories of such places or is this just a growing up in early ‘80s Plymouth thing?

IMGP0274As the nostalgia washed over me I snapped a few pics with my phone and Graham experimented with my camera. You can see the fruits of our labours in the pictures that accompany this piece. Neither of us is a professional and it was really quite gloomy and we did the best that we could…

The ticket promised a “special guest” and so we expected a support act but there wasn’t one. This was a bit of a disappointment because we had missed the start last time and so this time we had ensured a prompt arrival only to find that we had to wait what seemed like ages for the show to start. Anyway shortly before 2100 the show started with There Is No One Like Vermeer (download here).


IMGP0306The format of the show was exactly the same as last time. Richman has long since stripped out all of the flim flam from his show. What you get is music pared right back to the bare minimum leaving only him, his acoustic guitar and Tommy Larkins (his drummer). Tommy plays the smallest drum-kit imaginable with stoic fortitude and almost no zeal at all. He just kind of watches Richman carefully, follows the beat and does all he can to avoid breaking out into a sweat as he caresses his skins with brushes. That doesn’t sound very encouraging but I mean it in the nicest way possible. Tommy is an essential part of the act and, if truth be told, he's a step closer to achieving “unlikely legend” status each time I see him.

And what an act it is! (If, indeed it is an “act” at all...) I don’t think there can be any middle ground with Richman. You will either get it, and enjoy it, or you won’t and you'll hate it. There’s a bit of singing, guitar playing, there’s some dancing and some chat. He is worth seeing live just to witness the dancing. “Dad dancing” only just begins to give a sense of the arrhythmic grace with which he throws his shapes. Rather like his singing, his guitar playing and the patter that accompanies it all the word “naff” is never far away and yet… and yet… And yet what? There is intelligence, charm, wit and sincerity aplenty. I suspect that it doesn’t matter too much to him if you get it or not. It’s what he does. Take it or leave it. It’s entirely up to you.


Much of the ritual that accompanies a show by a more orthodox performer is either completely absent or there merely by coincidence. One song segues into another seamlessly often with no applause-milking pause. Sometimes a song is stopped abruptly in mid-chorus and he’ll start chatting to the audience: “have I played Door to Bohemia yet?” “No” replied the crowd and off he goes in a new direction with the old one cast aside.

Sometimes the whimsy over-rides a little too much for me. I speak a little French but not much of anything else which makes a slew of songs in French and or Spanish (I think) hard to appreciate or identify. The Little Englander in me really does wish that the New Englander would stick to songs in English but that's the way it goes and it is just one more facet of his individuality and lack of compromise.

I’m pretty sure that the audience would go wild for a set peppered with his “hits” such as they are. But there isn’t a hint of Pablo Picasso or Roadrunner or Ice Cream Man or many of the other old favourites although Egyptian Reggae, his biggest UK hit back in ‘77, did get an airing.

Every fan review of a gig needs a list of the songs played so here it is: No one was like Vermeer; There's something about the moon; My affected accent; Escapades in Spanish; She rocks.; Her love is from somewhere else; These bodies; Because her beauty is raw and wild; Old world; Girlfriend; Springtime in New York; Bar B Q; Let her go into the darkness; Door to Bohemia; Savoir Matisse; Egyptian Reggae; My baby love love loves me now; When we refuse to suffer (encore 1); Keith Richard (encore 2). (I’m guessing about some of those song titles and might have missed a few.)

I’d like to try to give a flavour of Richman’s verbal approach but it is hard to do it justice. He just stopped in the middle of Old World and acted out a conversation between the sea and a person about the amount of junk the sea is polluted with. The warning from the sea was clear enough but but the person refused to accept the warning. “Why don’t you tap the world on the shoulder and tell everybody” the person asked. “You have been tapped. You just don’t realise it yet” replied the sea.

That was just one of several asides and by far the most overtly political. "This is one beautiful building” was another on a far more aesthetic level. It sounds rather daft but I could listen to him just prattle away about anything ~ he has the coolest, most laconic speaking voice imaginable and he genuinely means every word he says or sings.

Here's Richman explaining what he does via the medium of poetry

The other event of note came after the first encore. Richman was obviously enjoying the audience’s acclaim and only noticed that Tommy was on his way back to the dressing room just before it would have been too late to call him back. However call him back he did much to a reluctant Tommy’s dismay and a second encore was played.

Despite being widely renowned as being something of a proto-punk icon there was nothing punky at all about the gig. If you didn’t know that he had hung around the Velvet Underground at Warhol’s Factory then you’d never guess. Richman has moved on but then don’t we all in various ways and after a career stretching back around 40 years I guess he has earned the right to do as he pleases which, perhaps, is the truest sign that the anarchic punk instincts are still there and are still fundamental to his approach. It’s just that it is a very finely honed, refined, quirky version of it.

So that’s what I made of it. After having had a quick scally around the internet I have found some other reviews. Make of them what you will.

Lots of other stuff here:

I can’t find any professionally written reviews of his shows (if you do then please let me know). All that came to light was Time Out’s preview which described the show thus: “The sainted Mr Richman plays four London gigs in as many days with his almost Latinesque take on guitar-pop, still providing the loveliest of melodies and wittiest of lyrics. Expect all the hits - from the rockin' 'Roadrunner', to the soppy 'Morning Of Our Lives', the gleeful lunacy of 'I'm a Little Dinosaur' and the rudeness of 'Pablo Picasso' - performed with gusto and sincerity.” Going by which the fanboy stuff is probably more relevant. Nobody with half an idea would have expected to hear him play those songs! It’s as fine an example of lazy journalism as you could wish to find!

Thank you for reading this far. Bye bye.

Edited to add: (free download included)