Live Music: The Jayhawks, the Fillmore, San Francisco, 2/4/12

Written by Concert Reviews, Music

I didn’t even know who the Jayhawks were in the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s, arguably the band’s defining years. I was a small town kid on the east coast and didn’t dig too deep beyond what my dad put on mixed tapes for me and what circulated through the halls of my middle school, much less be even the least bit acquainted with anything of importance happening in independent Americana music. It was after high school—geez, maybe even college—that I finally discovered the Jayhawks and came to understand the importance of the Minneapolis scene they helped spearhead and define. (Our Band Could Be Your Life is responsible for providing me with much of my initial comprehensive education of the “American indie underground.”) Not that the Jayhawks were among the artists chronicled and chaptered in that book. Though a flagship band of the Minnesota scene, the Jayhawks never really rose to notoriety like their Midwestern contemporaries Hüsker Dü or the Replacements or even Uncle Tupelo. But though they may have made less of an obvious calculable impact, they certainly made a deep enough imprint on America’s musical consciousness to warrant back-to-back shows at the almighty Fillmore this past weekend.

I was actually surprised to see them billed for two nights; neither show sold out. But there were plenty of people in attendance on Saturday night. I unfortunately missed the opener, banjo badass Abigail Washburn, so the anticipation had already collectively mounted when I finally got to the venue during the Jayhawks’ first song.

Disclaimer: I am not very well acclimated with the depth of the band’s catalog. I am quite familiar with their music and their sound, and spent some significant time (retrospectively) with their earlier albums, including 1986’s self-titled debut and ‘92’s breakout record Hollywood Town Hall, and I sang the praises of Mark Olson and Gary Louris’ wistful reunion record Ready for the Flood with likeminded musical friends. But I had not listened to the Jayhawks’ newest album, last year’s Mockingbird Time, until the day before the show, and they played more than a few songs that I did not at all recognize. I am not as invested in the Jayhawks’ catalog as I should be, and that’s my loss. But it was liberating to take in a set, from a band with nearly 30 years on them, without any preconceptions of what to expect.

Ultimately, the Jayhawks are an important band and one that I wished to support and pay my respects to. Did their music sound a bit bland and adult contemporary to my ears? Yes. Did I expect a more rockin’ set? Yes. Did I expect the vast majority of the audience to be over the age of 50? I guess I hadn’t really thought about it, but it was definitely a veteran crowd in attendance that night. Does that matter? Of course not. It just made the bar free and clear every time I went to refill.

But the earnestness in the performer’s set and the sincerity of the crowd’s response made the show worthy of any music lover’s time and money. For the second half of the show, I hung in the back and picked out the lone souls in the audience really getting down, lost and enamored in the fact that they did know every song by the band. I only wished I had that knowledge—and therefore love—to impart on a concert hall full of people. The band sounded fantastic, their musical prowess and professionalism shining through on every track. Karen Grotberg, on keyboards and with a voice of honey, brought a fitting gracefulness to their songs, and the vocal harmonies of Olson and Louris are simply gorgeous, one of the crowning trademarks of the Jayhawks’ music. Though it’s easy and usually natural to equate a band with their glory years, those earlier days of building blocks and raw novelty, to hear the Jayhawks seasoned, at peace and playing together decades after their inception, brings apt and heartening evidence to the truth that America has delivered to the world its own musical treasures.