"This isn't like other shows," explained Jonathan Richman, with characteristic understatement, partly through his set Sunday night at Firehouse 13. In the nearly forty years since Richman's first band, the Modern Lovers, provided the template for punk rock (the Sex Pistols hilariously covered his New England highway anthem "Roadrunner"), the 60-year-old songwriter developed his own style of performing. Over unrelenting beats from drummer Tommy Larkins (who replaced his snare drum with a conga), Richman improvises and interrupts his set lists with flamenco strums, dance moves, translations of Spanish and Italian lyrics, and even, in the middle of a song called "My Affected Accent," a William F. Buckley impersonation.<!--more-->
The simple declarations of Jonathan's lyrics (sample title: "If You Want to Leave Our Party, Just Go"), combined with his meek voice (though Jonathan can be recognized in the Providence scenes of There's Something About Mary, his greatest impact on '90s gross-out comedy might be Adam Sandler's inward mumble), give off all the sophistication of a child in his latency stage. This being the same Jonathan who once chewed out a too-stoned "Hippie Johnny," one is tempted to imagine his parties consisting mainly of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. In a new song, Jonathan described observing the "hipsters" in Harvard Square as a "bratty but sincere" teenager before urging the audience to "show me the door to bohemia" -- the unspoken joke being that Jonathan's defiant un-hipness has allowed him to out-hip the hipsters. But it's Jonathan's love of dancing, both as described in songs like "Take Me to the Plaza" (which on Sunday night took the place of the classic "I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar") and as exhibited in a series of raised arms, dipped knees, and swung hips, that demonstrates a mature comfort with his body ignored by almost all of the indie rockers who've followed him.