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Jonathan Richman
40 Watt, The Earl
February 2007

Rolling along highway 316 with degenerate EM at the wheel, I was trying to remember the last time I'd been to Athens. I never fell for Athens. Even on my first visit in the mid-1980's it seemed like a town full of wannabees. The hippies wanted to be full-time hippies but couldn't afford school and slacking so they either lived off their parents or worked. The button-down future yuppies in business school spent more time watching football and drinking than studying. And the bands all seemed content to be big fish in the small pond of Athens, rarely venturing out of town. But it's been - sheesh - 10 years since my last visit? I've only visited a handful of times over the years. About once a year there's some event I wouldn't mind going to but I don't know many folks in Athens any more, so I'd either have to stay sober enough for the drive home or get a hotel room. It rarely seems worth the effort.

I think I had a beer at the original location of the 40 Watt somewhere about the time man discovered fire. I walked past the current location a decade ago but didn't go in. Compared to the old location, it seemed big, cold and sterile. So when I walked in the door in February '07 I was surprised to find my cursory first impression from a decade ago 100% confirmed. Or just reinforced? Drinks are reasonably priced and they have pinball machines in the back, so it can't be all bad.

A duet from New York drove 800 miles just to open for Jonathan Richman. I don't think I ever caught their names. I meant to look it up when I got back but forgot and now too much time has passed for me to track them down. Which is fine because they did that rootsy, Americana, poetic crap I don't enjoy. I understand it, I just don't like it. They were nice guys, but they didn't excite most of the other folks in the crowd either.

Speaking of, Jonathan Richman brought out some folks that looked like they hadn't been to a show, or perhaps even left the house, in a decade or more. I know I'm getting old myself, but some of the crowd made me feel comparatively young. It's nice to see grandmotherly types out after dark. When Jonathan finally stepped on stage he had a geekish presence that reminded me of Emo Phillips, but he strummed his acoustic guitar in a Spanish style and went into tunes with so many different languages it was as if Emo Phillips had taken up a job as the lead singer of the Gypsy Kings. Fun!

Unfortunately, the frat brothers and sorority sisters weren't impressed and chatted loudly through his entire set. Even Jonathan seemed distracted by the noise. Christ, people, you paid $10 to stand in a bar and chat?!? What the fuck? I know, I know, now you can say you saw Jonathan Richman. But you didn't hear him.

Fuck you and fuck Athens.

The experience was somewhat annoying, so I didn't mind trying again the next night on my home turf, The Earl. Things started off with Jam tribute act Gentleman Jessie and His Men. OK, they're not actually a Jam tribute act, but if you like The Jam you'll like Gentlemen Jessie and His Men.
Or Man, in this case, since apparently Jonathan's contract specifies that only singles or duets can open for him. So Jessie and his guitarist did a more acoustic set, which sounded great, sort of like Elvis Costello's quieter numbers. They could do Eddie's Attic with this stuff and I might actually go.

The half-empty, chatty 40 Watt seemed like a waste of time compared to the crowded, quiet and appreciative crowd when Jonathan came on. Seeing an act two nights in a row made me notice the differences - different numbers, different versions, different order. It made me wonder what it would be like to be on stage night after night with a handful of tunes. How soon would it be before you started doing them in Italiano just for variation, or throwing in strange and random cover tunes?

I enjoyed the show, but I couldn't have gone back for a third show when he returned to the Earl the next night. And it'll have to be a favorite act that's only playing Athens and nowhere else in the southeast to make me trek out highway 316 again.


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