The Scene: As people who danced at their senior prom sometime during the 90’s funneled into The Ogden Theatre, I realized The Jayhawks appealed to an age group more than a type. The crowd had a high level of anticipation and plenty of elbow room as they waited for the reunion of Jayhawks front men Gary Louris and Mark Olsen to happen right before their very eyes. While most of the fans had already heard the two voices reunited on the 2011 release, Mockingbird Time, they were foaming at the mouth to see the two on stage and in the flesh. The fact that the venue was well over half full before Justin Townes Earle played his first note, proved that The Jayhawks weren’t the only reason people were buying tickets.
Opener: Justin Townes Earle walked on stage with the presence of someone who is going places, but at the same time, like someone who has been around the block. Last year’s album Harlem River Blues brought Earle some recognition, and his set revealed why it is so well deserved.
Earle started the night off with “Walking Through Memphis In the Rain,” a track off of his yet to be released album, Nothings Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. The upright bass thumped like a drum as it was plucked by the hands of any “any day now” mother to be. The growl in Earle’s voice, and his old blues man style strumming, was softened by the finesse of a Fiddle to his right. The new track had a raw and old-timey feel, and made me look forward to the March 27th release of his new material.
“One More Night in Brooklyn” was slow and smooth, and the dramatic “Mama’s Eyes” followed suit. “I Ain’t Waitin’” picked up the pace, and the fiddle got sassier. It wasn’t until the ladies left the stage that the blues really poured out of Earle and he tore through Lightning Hopkins’ “I Been Burning Bad Gasoline.” Though he announced the song as “Automobile Blues,” he played the song soulfully and hard, fingerpicking, strumming, and slapping with every ounce of his being. Earle’s gruff voice and aggressive playing got the crowd hollering, which by now had grown to about three quarters of its peak size.
“Wanderin’” channeled the spirit of box car travel and sounds like it could have been written by Woody Guthrie himself. As Earle was about to get into his last song, “Harlem River Blues,” The Jayhawks Gary Louris joined him on stage and chimed in on guitar and vocals. The sight of Gary made the audience erupt, but his contribution to the song was nothing more than a sputter. Earle walked of stage much too soon, but to the sound of hearty applause.
The Jayhawks: The reception the crowd gave The Jayhawks when they walked on stage would make you think it was The Eagle’s 1994 Hell Freezes Over Tour! Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and these fans hadn’t seen Gary and Mark on stage together in quite a while. They started the set off with “Wichita,” a song which was released on “Hollywood Town Hall” in 1992. The crowd picked right up on the first few notes, and the band picked right up where they left off.
Olsen announced that the next song was off of their 1995 release Tomorrow the Green Grass, and just hearing the name of the album spoken aloud was enough to get the crowd screaming! “Red’s Song” had the voices of the two front men blending nicely, but not even a glance was thrown in the other’s direction. Sadly there seemed to be zero chemistry or connection between the two. “Closer to Your Side” was mellow and joyful like the crowd, and was the first song they played off of the newly released Mockingbird Time album. This reunion album does a good job at blending the different Jayhawks sounds from different times, but doesn’t really break any new ground. The new album may have satisfied die-hard fans, but I fear it will not pull in many new ones.
The crowd enthusiastically sang along to “Take Me With You (When You Go),” which has pop in the chorus and smoothness throughout. People swayed from side to side to this anthem of the past, but it was “Blue” that blew their minds. The most recognizable of all The Jayhawks songs, it represents what this band can do, but is also set a high bar they may never reach again.
There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm on stage, especially from a band that is getting a rare second chance. Just as I was beginning to grow bored and disappointed, “Black Eyed Susan” changed it up a bit, as it dramatically built-up towards the end. Finally I saw some of that sorely lacking passion! I was beginning to think that these guys were forced to be playing together against their will!
Unfortunately, the most energetic and inspiring performance came at the very end of the set. As they played “Up Above My Head” I wondered if they had been given some kind of electrical shock by the stage manager to get them going. It was like a totally different band came out for that last song!
The crowd tenaciously cheered them on for an encore, and they took their time coming back on stage. Justin Townes Earle’s fiddle player walked out with them, and technical difficulties took some wind out of their sails. The minutes long silence was sporadically broken by random and awkward comments from the band, and they finally started “Over My Shoulder” with two techs still on the stage. The song was over half over before the fiddle was heard through the speakers, but I was so glad the fiddle player was lending some energy to the tune. The band closed the show with “Ain’t No End,” but thank god there finally was.
The night had a stark contrast to it. It started off with a man who is on his way up, and ended with a band that is somewhere in limbo. Earle displayed passion, soul, meaning with his performance, while The Jayhawks seemed like it was all just a job. The audience seemed to be completely blown away by The Jayhawks set, but I think they were drunk on nostalgia. If this band is going to take advantage of another shot, they will need to step up their live performance to draw new blood to the crowd. A lot of great bands have come out in the past 20 years, and they have stayed in fighting shape and in the ring. The Jayhawks are going to have to eat their Wheaties if they want to stay on the circuit; but with such great fans in their corner, I think they still have a shot.
Stage Presence: B-
Set/Light show: B