I can still remember when I first heard the Jayhawks in the early nineties. A friend had given me a tape of Hollywood Town Hall
and my first response was “Neil Young could probably sue those guys.” I think I might have said that once or twice when the subject of the Jayhawks came up but after a few listens… and then a few more… those songs started working their way into my head on a cellular level. I quit making snarky comments about them and started playing them all the time.
Over the course of three records they managed to forge a sound that was, at the same time, highly derivative and highly original and became one of my very favorite bands.
Yeah, they were more white-guy-folk-rock than the "alt country" label they were tagged with. Their early seventies “Southern Man” style riffs and long guitar jams merged with vaguely abstract lyrics and those ethereal harmonies between songwriters Mark Olson and Gary Louris, created a bunch of stubbornly enduring songs that could stick in your head like superglue.
After Olson left the band at their creative peak in ‘95, despite teaming up with his then-wife Victoria Williams, he kind of faded into obscurity while Louris kept the Jayhawks going, changing their sound pretty dramatically on the next two albums.
I caught an Olson solo show last year. It was a great night of quiet acoustic music with a few Jayhawks songs but there was definitely something missing. Obviously what was missing was Gary Louris.
So when Olson and Louris had put out a new acoustic record and booked a show in town, at the Sons of Herman Hall no less, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person around here who was overly excited at the opportunity.
Friday night they showed this town just what was lost when they went their separate ways long over a decade ago. You can take your Simon and Garfunkel and your Tweedy and Farrar and your Johnny and June and even your She and Him… If ever two people were born to sing together it was Olson and Louris.
They started out a little shaky. Opening with “Rose Society” from their new album, Ready For The Flood, the mix was a little murky and their timing sounded a little off. Even when they followed that with “Two Angels” from their breakthrough second album, Hollywood Town Hall, it sounded a little awkward- like they were still trying to find their stride. They found it about 4 or 5 songs in after Olson asked the sound board for a little more mic then very politely asked if they could maybe turn off the famous but kind of annoying Sons of Herman mirror ball so they could get an actual groove going without all the distraction.
Then they launched into “Red’s Song,” from Tomorrow the Green Grass, the last Jayhawks album that featured them both together. At this point the crowd erupted at the opening chords, or at least as close to actually erupting as they had come so far, and all of a sudden the heavens aligned, their voices fully synced, the timing came together perfectly and damned if they didn’t find that groove. A groove they worked the rest of the night.
The crowd was as quiet and attentive as I’ve ever seen at the Sons. That’s no small thing considering the set-list was old favorites mixed in with new songs that an audience full of aging Jayhawks fans had most likely never heard. Still they had pretty much everyone hanging on nearly every word and note.
While the majority of the show was just Olson and Louris singing that sound that only the two of them can create and playing acoustic guitars there was still some interesting variety to be had as well. Percussionist Ingunn Ringvold, or Sailorine as she’s known in her native Norway, sat behind them trancelike, shaking a variety of little noisemakers and slapping on an ornately carved African hand drum called a djembe. She not only gave the whole thing an element of cool mystique but also provided a subtle yet solid beat. And at one point Olson brought out an Appalachian style dulcimer he played in his lap. The man wailed on that thing and brought some noise to the room and made it look pretty easy.
I don’t know if it was intentional or not but like the set-list itself, a lot of the between song banter focused on things that used to be… they asked if anyone remembered the first band they ever played Dallas with- Flathead. No one did. They also mentioned playing here with Slobberbone, who everyone seemed to remember. They reminisced about playing at Club Clearview and how cool the Bronco Bowl was.
It was hard to say what was better- the new songs or the old ones. The old ones have had time to marinate, but since they played them all stripped down to the bare essentials- guitars, voices and djembe, etc. it was amazing how much like the new ones they sounded.
As a team they’ve still got it. Brand new songs like “Bicycle” and “Saturday Morning On Sunday Street” stood out so memorably that I was humming them to myself that night after I got home. The litany of old Jayhawks songs they played sounded like what you might have heard if they had made one of those MTV Unplugged albums that were so popular back when these guys were kicking it with their old band.
It was also a pretty a sweet move billing The O’s as an opener since both acts feature strong songwriting, vocal harmonies, acoustic strings and minimal percussion. It was also a great opportunity for The O’s to play for a roomful of what would have to be a key demographic. They rose to the challenge admirably doing a short set of the best stuff from their debut CD, We Are The O’s.
When Olson and Louris came out for a 3 song encore they had John Pedigo of the O’s sit in on banjo on one of their more striking new songs “The Traps Been Set.” He looked pretty happy to be up there adding some atmosphere behind Olson’s nicely delivered spoken word poetry. They closed with what is arguably their best song- "Blue." Olson had played that one at his show last year but it was striking how much more fully realized it was with Louris accompanying him.
I’ve read that there’s some talk of the original Jayhawks getting back together here and there as an occasional thing. They’ve already played a couple shows in Spain< and in their hometown of Minneapolis. I sure hope it happens more often and they make it here- or at least somewhere nearby. In the meantime the stripped down, acoustic singer-songwriter team of Louris and Olson is as close as you’re gonna get. And it’s like nothing else out there.
Bonus YouTube clip– Here’s Louris and Olson doing one of the songs from Flood that they actually wrote back in the early Jayhawks days: