Jonathan Richman introduces new Chico-produced album
On most business days, Magnolia Gift and Garden is exactly what its name implies—a large, immaculately kept outdoor area for displaying all kinds of plants, statuary, pottery and gardening supplies as well as a small gift shop filled with seeds, soil amendments and garden and home décor. But at one end of the outdoor yard, built out in front of a cool blue mural on the side of a converted storage container, is a wooden stage that hints at another side of the East Avenue nursery: concert venue.
And on Sunday (Aug. 7), it was none other than punk-pioneer-turned-well-traveled-troubadour Jonathan Richman putting on a show at Magnolia, debuting his newest release, the Chico-produced Ishkode! Ishkode!, alongside Chico bands Bad Mana and Skin Peaks, plus longtime drummer/collaborator Tommy Larkin and a wide-ranging cast of local musicians who worked on the recording.
When I arrived at the nursery, the members of Skin Peaks were settling into their gear on stage. (Regretfully, I missed Bad Mana’s opening set.) After a simple but emphatic drum intro from Elliot Maldonado, guitarist Lisa Marie Hiatt and bassist Kerra Jessen simultaneously laid out the ominous, slow-motion surf riff of “Midnight” guided by Hiatt’s distinctive, heavily reverbed midtone picking, which emphasizes singular notes rather than strumming to produce rhythm. The style is well-suited to singer Kelly Brown’s wickedly emotive vocals and lyrics. Balancing Brown’s moodier approach were Jessen’s sassy vocals on “Dark-Haired Mama,” a rave-up that would fit right into a Wanda Jackson album, circa 1959.
Skin Peaks delivered a solid half-hour of original rock ’n’ roll that kept the upfront portion of the audience energized throughout, and may have even raised a few eyebrows with the closing two-minute blast of “Dik Pixxx.”
The intimate garden setting proved ideal for Richman’s set. After casually setting up his own gear and making minor adjustments to the sound system to achieve clarity for his trademark low-volume approach, Richman welcomed to the stage a rotation of local musicians—including Skin Peaks’ Hiatt and Brown, drummer Jake Sprecher and bassist Miles Montalbano, among others—who also worked on Ishkode! Ishkode!, his first release in six years, which was recorded at local engineer/musician Scott Barwick’s Origami Recording Lounge.
Starting off with a tribute to the virtues of romantic socializing on the sidewalk at downtown Chico’s iconic tavern, “Outside O’Duffy’s” gave the set a hometown feel that emphasized Boston-born Richman’s heartfelt connection to the little city he now calls home. The title song of the new album (“Ishkode” means “fire” in the Ojibwe language) followed with Hiatt and Brown supplying the chanted title as Richman sang of the poetic nature of contemplating a bonfire that “brings up feelings from way down back … bringin’ up sorrows that we can’t name.” Montalbano’s bassline was reminiscent of the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and was nicely counterpointed by Richman’s rhythm guitar and intricately melodic picking.
Other songs from the new album, such as the Italian-sung “A Nnammurata Mia” (featuring young Chico accordionist Ava Moore), are beautifully crafted additions to Richman’s 40-year oeuvre. And his perfectly suited garden presentation—including a section of the concert featuring backup from the “Duffy’s Chorus” (Kelly Houston, Victor Robin, David “12-Pack” Sorensen, Rich Morarre, Dave Melendez and bar owner Roger Montalbano)—was as fresh as ever. Richman still maintains his nearly shamanistic ability to express childlike wonder and humor mixed with insightful wisdom based on his acute and empathic observations.