Mark Olson seemed a little anxious to get out under the lights at the Paradise Tuesday night. He walked out while the tech was still onstage testing equipment, followed closely behind by the rest of THE JAYHAWKS, the band he left in 1995. Without so much as an introduction or a “Hello, Boston,” Olson strummed the band into “Wichita,” from the band’s landmark 1992 album Hollywood Town Hall. Olson and Gary Louris were harmonizing as if they had never parted ways, and all was right in the Jayhawks universe.
Of course, Olson and Louris have had some practice. Leading up to September’s Mockingbird Time, Olson and Louris released Ready For the Flood as a duo in 2009 and toured together. And Olson had rejoined the Jayhawks for a few live dates. But there is something about this band as a unit – rounded out by the underrated rhythm section of Marc Perlman and Tim O’Reagan and Karen Grotberg on keyboards – some extra bit of magic hearing them play together.
When Louris came to the Somerville Theatre in 2008 in support of his solo album Vagabonds, the show was criminally under-attended, just a few dedicated fans. Even when Louris and Olson came together the next year, the crowd was again a little light. But with a new Jayhawks album out and a familiar line-up, the band packed the Paradise. The show was officially sold out for weeks, and only fell short of a sellout by a handful of tickets because the venue had its official capacity increased Tuesday morning by 25 people.
This particular configuration of the Jayhawks only had eight months together on the road before reconvening to make Mockingbird Time – O’Reagan joined the band shortly after Tomorrow the Green Grass was recorded, touring in support of the album before Olson left. To the ear, though, this is the classic line-up. They drew from all over the catalogue for their 19-song set, even dipping into Rainy Day Music for “Angelyne” and “Tampa To Tulsa,” which featured O’Reagan on vocals.
Most of the set came from Town Hall, Green Grass, and the Mockingbird Time. There were a lot of crowd pleasers, including “Real Light,” “Take Me With You When You Go,” “I’d Run Away,” and perhaps the band’s best-known song, “Blue,” which the crowd immediately cheered. Olson and Louris sang their signature two-part harmonies and the counterpoint on the bridge flawlessly on that song.
Olson had to leave for a solo tour before the band finished Mockingbird Time, so some of the new songs are naturally changing a bit live, if only subtly. “Cinnamon Love” was not as hard-charging as on the album, and the pounding middle-section was shortened. “Closer To Your Side” got bigger, featuring O’Reagan and Grotberg a bit more for four-part harmonies, along with Grotberg’s keys. Louris left behind the pinched harmonic sound of his recorded solo on “Stand Out In the Rain” for a trippier sound, leaning heavily on his volume knob on his Gibson SG.
“Black-Eyed Susan” stuck pretty close to the original, but without the strings, of course. Olson stepped out for an acoustic guitar solo at the end and threatened to break the rhythm apart briefly before reigning it back in for the outro. This one feels like it’s developing into a centerpiece of the live show.
The Jayhawks also lived up to the Minnesotan stereotypes – they didn’t say much and they were exceedingly polite and careful not to talk over each other. And on the rare song when Olson wasn’t playing his Guild acoustic guitar, he was dancing like your dad on beer four at the company picnic. But that’s part of their charm, and the songs speak for themselves.
The regular set ended with a beautiful version of “Up Above My Head,” a gospel standard that was a bonus track from this year’s rerelease of Hollywood Town Hall. It showed the power this line-up can harness when the band puts together four-part harmonies.
There was no pretense that the band wasn’t coming back for an encore, especially when a stage tech came out to tune Louris’s SG. What was surprising was the band’s stunning rendering of Nazareth’s “Love Hurts,” on which Louris and Olson gave their best vocal performance. They played a version of “Settled Down Like Rain” with a more prominent organ sound, and called it a night after covering the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “I Don’t Want.” Nothing sounded like a cover. Other than the bubbly organ sound on the last tune, it all sounded like Jayhawks music.
Earlier in the evening, Rayland Baxter opened the show with a solo set split between his acoustic and electric guitar. He had got a clear, sonorous voice (think of Ryan Adams on Heartbreaker) a wry sense of humor, and a warm finger-picking guitar style. He sold an EP in homemade brown paper rappers with a wax seal – a nice homey touch – and already has a full-length in the can he is hoping to release in 2012. He’ll be someone to watch for next year.