A few weeks back the Jayhawks, a country-rock quartet from Minneapolis, transformed Metro into the living room of an undergraduate apartment--you know the kind, in an off-campus party house. They outfitted Metro with shopping-bag brown Goodwill armchairs and a sofa set and a half dozen mismatched standing lamps, and they suspended guitars, clocks, and several U.S. flags (in Metro!) from the ceiling, giving the whole place an agreeable air of disheveled domesticity.
Whether the decor was part of their regular show or an accommodation for the video shot during the band's 18-song performance, it struck me as in keeping with the Jayhawks' music, which has the casualness and intimacy of songs conceived and learned around the kitchen table or out on the front porch. The band's loose-knit arrangements stand out close and familiar, especially Gary Louris's coarse, sputtering electric guitar and his unkempt harmonies with Mark Olson, which are at the heart of the Jayhawks' songs. Olson, who handles most of the band's lead vocals, has a slightly drawling bass voice that's cheery, almost conversational. Add to it Louris's pinched tenor and you've got a sound like the Everly brothers on a bender--as on their final encore, the mournful "Ain't No End," when they tore at the song's chorus as if ripping a sheet into rags. These dog-eared vocal interweavings, which offer the band's chief pleasure, suggest the relaxed camaraderie of roommates sharing coffee, cigarettes, and conversation.
In keeping with the Jayhawks' slacker ethos, they're easily one of the least aggressive live acts I've heard, even taking into account Louris's Neil Young-indebted guitar squalls. Rather than meshing with Marc Perlman's bass and Ken Callahan's drums to give the songs a strong rhythmic foundation, Louris for the most part plays alongside the vocals, providing accompaniment and counterpoint; and Olson's acoustic-guitar strumming isn't forceful or rhythmically adept enough to carry the songs. No, the surging vocals provide the momentum, leaving the rhythm section to fall in behind. But unfortunately Perlman and Callahan play too hard and bottom-heavy for this breezy material: they sound apart from the rest of the music, even at odds with it. In particular Callahan's tendency toward bass-and-snare thumping struck me as cumbersome in contrast with the gentle, lovely harmonies on the likes of "Settled Down Like Rain."
On Hollywood Town Hall, the Jayhawks' major-label debut, Black Crowes producer George Drakoulias managed to tie the songs more tightly to the rhythm, in part by giving the bass and drums more room in the mix and the vocals less. That strategy becomes evident in the difference between the version of "Two Angels" that appears on Hollywood Town Hall and the one found on its independent-label predecessor, Blue Earth. Olson and Louris's harmonies stretch out wide on the earlier record--they sing the chorus "twoooo aayngels one baahd and . . . " while the drums shuffle lightly in the background. Drakoulias makes Callahan (who joined the band after Blue Earth) a more insistent force, putting him up front and center in the mix, leaving a narrower area for the harmonies and filling the resulting space with pedal steel guitar, piano, and organ.
At Metro, Perlman and Callahan continued in this harder, rock-oriented vein, though it was unclear whether this style had to do with Drakoulias's interventions or their own predilections. Louris and Olson, though, reverted to the loose, relaxed style of Blue Earth, only getting into sync with the rhythm section to give the songs some drive and punch near the end of the set. They got a groove going on "Waiting for the Sun," the penultimate song of the set, but the ending was slavishly imitative of the coda to the Black Crowes' "Jealous Again"--the show's only contrived, false-sounding moment. "Wichita," which immediately followed, was more successful, as Perlman and Callahan's playing jelled with Karen Grotberg's piano to provide a rock-solid foundation for Louris's wah-wah guitar soloing. By the time of the first encore, the yelping harmonies and Louris's buzz-saw guitar tied in tightly with Callahan's slamming drums to drive the song--oddly, a cover of 60s folkie Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe"--harder than anything they'd played yet. And Louris and Olson's staccato phrasing added rhythmic force to the guitar stomp of "Red Firecracker," the next-to-last encore.
The rest of the time, without a strong rhythmic drive, the Jayhawks' best stuff--Louris's guitar, the harmonies (ascendant on "Clouds"), and Grotberg's piano, which dusted "Pray for Me" like light spring rain--was agreeable but hardly riveting. As a consequence the acoustic portion of the band's set, about midway through, proved the most satisfying and compelling part of the show, not the mere diversionary change of pace such interludes usually are. Louris, Olson, and Perlman sat on the decrepit furniture in a semicircle, illuminated by the tacky lamps, and the music felt as comfortable as the setting. Freed from the need to rock hard, Perlman and Callahan proved effective at providing sympathetic accompaniment, moving the music forward gently. With plenty of room to breathe, the harmonies on "Sister Cry" and "Two Angels" were lovely and gracious. Louris's guitar solo on the former suggested an acoustic variation on Neil Young's "Down by the River," and on "Violets" it suggested a pickup truck stuck in backyard mud on a Saturday morning. The tenderness of feeling behind this music, and the apparent intimacy between the players, made it seem the best suited to the band's spirit.
Given the Jayhawks' lack of an aggressive edge, this type of musical and physical setting seems best for them. At a time when so much popular music seems to be a contest to see who can shout loudest, it's understandable that they, or their producers, might try to make their sound tougher and more raucous. I'd rather the Jayhawks buck the trends even harder, finding more quiet, homey settings for their shaggy harmonies and loose guitar playing. They're at their best sitting down.