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Apathetic classics

In previous articles we mentioned the band Uncle Tupelo was one of the pioneers of the so-called alternative (American, if preferred) country. Well, taking the risk of doing a family analogy, we would say that Uncle Tupelo was the father, and The Jayhawks the mother. Sometimes people get the impression that the band from Minnesota started walking their musical path with their famous album Hollywood Town Hall (American Recordings, 1992) which is true to a certain extent and at a symbolic level, for it was the album that finally made them break the barriers, but it had already been years since Gary Louis, Mark Olson and Mark Perlman were breaking their backs to make people notice them. We have to go back to 1986, yes, when alternative rock was beginning to grow with bands such as R.E.M., Sonic Youth and Pixies, to find their first recording; The Jayhawks (Bunkhouse Records, 1986) and Blue on Earth (Twin Tone, 1989) were their beginner records in small labels and with a limited distribution. In a certain way they were like a experimentation laboratory to learn and find that perfect formula that enabled them to invoice the two albums by which everybody remembers them; the aforementioned Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass (American Recordings, 1995). What came later could not be the same anymore because one of the ingredients of the formula was missing. Mark Olson, one of the two creative heads of the band, abandoned the ship. The band was left in the hands of Gary Louis, who continued to write a bunch of brilliant songs for their three following albums; Sound of Lies (American Recordings, 1997), Smile (Columbia, 2000) and Rainy Day Music (American Recordings, 2003), but something was forever lost in the way. In 2011 they edited the discreet Mockingbird Time (Rounder, 2011) in an ephemeral return of Mark Olson, who later abandoned them again.

In this context we get to the present, when the band announces their European tour due to the re-edition of the albums belonging to the post-Mark Olson period, and they clearly specify it on the advertising posters, but one doesn’t have to be a genius to realize that what people really want to listen to are their songs from the previous albums. Aware of this, the band has included some of those hits in the tour’s setlist.

The performance of The Jayhawks in the Apolo hall left a bittersweet taste, a ‘yes but no’. Let’s go one step at a time; on the one hand there’s nothing to rebuke as far as the sound, execution and repertory is concerned. An almost two-hour show with a wise selection of songs from the honoured albums. The voice of a grey-haired Gary Louis sounded sublimely, properly supported by Tom O’Reagan (drums) and Karen Grotberg (keyboards), creating those so easily recognizable vocal harmonies that distinguish them from the rest. A good sense of smell for melodies has always been Louris’ strong point, as well as knowing how to combine the few necessary chords to obtain them. Songs of the caliber of Stumbling Through The Dark, Trouble, Save it for a Rainy Day y The Man Who Loved Life are worth their weight in gold. Their most lively side was also present with the forceful guitars in Think About It and the catchy choruses in Smile, Big Star and Tailspin. Inspired moments intertwined with lower ones when they played essentials like Haywire, Somewhere in Ohio and I’m Gonna Make You Love Me (song with which they opened their performance and that has such a cushy chorus that it turns out to be a little embarrassing). On the other hand is the mysterious sixth member who, standing in a corner, played his mandolin, whose sound was barely distinguishable.

The best moments of the concert inevitably came when they played four songs which theoretically shouldn’t have been played but everybody was expecting. Mostly two of them: Blue, one of Louris’ best compositions —in fact he once said during an interview that he would never be able to write a better song— chanted by all of those present, and I’d Run Away, both from Tomorrow the Green Grass and both being almost the creative summit of the Olson-Louris duet; for their part, Waiting for the Sun and Take Me With You (When You Go) were the contributions from Hollywood Town Hall.

It should also be noted the Neil Young’s cover, Revolution Blues, sang by the supporting guitar player Kraig Johnson, who made up for his lack of charisma compared to Louris with his passion, as well as the song by the super band Golden Smog (consisting of members of Wilco, Soul Asylum and Jayhawks), If I Only Had a Car. The fun rock & roll of the B-side Fools on Parade did not go beyond the level of anecdotic.

That being said, the truth is that with respect to the attitude, the band gave the impression of being on automatic pilot mode, with little dedication and a slightly tired Gary Louris that scarcely talked to the audience. Mark Perlman, bass player and only survivor from the beginnings of the band who has never abandoned Louris, remained in the background. almost absent, and Kraig Johnson besides Louris, looked a little repressed. Their bodies were there but their minds seemed to be somewhere else, and this is most of the time what makes the difference between a good show and a great show. After finishing the last song they quickly greeted the attendees, and if they could have gotten off the stage a little faster, they would have flown.

Translation by Irene Soto.