The Winters of our bliss, content

Let’s talk romance.

Specifically, let’s talk about Jonathan Richman, the former Grass Valley resident who played the Palms in Winters last week. Now, it’s a little before February 14 to be discussing the antics of Cupid, but Richman has that kind of effect on an audience; to call him the greatest of American romantic singers, or at least the greatest of American romantic singers who appeared in the wake of the Beatles, would not be an understatement.

OK, some of you can argue that the hair-product-slathered lad who fronts Maroon 5 is more romantic, and certainly the late, great Barry White has a legitimate claim to that throne. So perhaps we’ll qualify the above by calling him the greatest American wide-eyed post-proto-punk guy who’s appeared in a few Farrelly Brothers films.

Suffice it to say that Richman’s 2001 album Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow is one of the most romantic albums to appear in this young century. And while the lush sweetness of that record requires an orchestral ensemble to deliver its sound, Richman performs, or at least he performed on this Tuesday night, on an acoustic nylon-stringed guitar, backed only by drummer Tommy Larkin.

Richman only performed one song, the title cut, from the above-mentioned album in his 90-minute performance, and—as with a few other songs that night, most notably “I Was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar”—he scrambled its recorded-version form enough to render it virtually unrecognizable.One high point was hearing him play “Old World,” a song from his band the Modern Lovers’ debut album, which was recorded in 1971-72 with producer (and founding Velvet Underground member) John Cale. The song’s lyrics, which give props to 1950s-vintage apartment houses looking bleak in the 1970s sun, hold up even today.

Richman’s singing style, which once was more of an adenoidal yelp, has matured into sweet crooning with an international flavor; imagine Joey Ramone morphing into Yves Montand. Or Domenico Modugno. Or even Vicente Fernandez. Richman did sing a few songs in Spanish and French, but it didn’t have the show-off nature of his appearance late last year at Marilyn’s, where he blithely segued between four languages.Holding his guitar up to a microphone rather than playing with a pickup, and without a guitar strap, his playing tended toward the sublime. Occasionally his instrumental breaks—and he did take numerous solos—betrayed a considerable amount of finesse; he even displayed a confident flamenco right-hand-technique a few times. Once in a while he’d tap a stomp box with his foot, which drenched the signal from his guitar mic with a hula-friendly reverb. His every move was backed adroitly by Larkin’s supple timekeeping, which never overpowered.

Occasionally Richman ventured toward the apron of the stage and burst into a dance—perhaps slightly nerdy, some might think, but Richman’s too comfortable in his own body to be called a nerd.While the Palms in Winters may be a different venue than the magical and now-razed old East Davis barn it replaced, the venue has been in the old 19th-century Winters Opera House digs for five years now, and it’s a great place to see a show. It’s a bit of a drive, but worth it.