Home Live Review Live Review: The Jayhawks w/ Freedy Johnston @ The Birchmere — 9/15/23

Live Review: The Jayhawks w/ Freedy Johnston @ The Birchmere — 9/15/23

Live Review: The Jayhawks w/ Freedy Johnston @ The Birchmere — 9/15/23
The Jayhawks (Photo by Sam Erickson)

People often ask Gary Louris, principal songwriter and lead vocalist for Minneapolis-based band The Jayhawks, where they got their name. At The Birchmere recently, Gary explained it came from the Hawks, who backed up rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. You may not know them as the Hawks, but you certainly have heard of them under the name they later adopted after working with Bob Dylan: The Band. 

Robbie Robertson, the guitarist and principal songwriter of The Band, passed away not too long ago. The Jayhawks paid tribute to him at The Birchmere with a cover of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

The Twin Cities have long had a thriving local scene, and it was out of that scene The Jayhawks emerged in the 1980s. At the core of the band was the songwriting and vocal harmony partnership of Louris and Mark Olson. The band broke through with their 1992 album Hollywood Town Hall. After the equally excellent Tomorrow the Green Grass, released in 1995, OIson left the band, though he has occasionally rejoined for periods since.

The band’s early work, driven by the partnership of Louris and Olson, leaved heavily into country-rock and Americana. They never abandoned that — there’s still pedal steel on a number of their songs — but they have leaned more into a pop sound since Olson’s departure. In that sense, there’s a similarity between The Jayhawks and another midwestern band, Wilco. Louris has worked Wilco’s leader, Jeff Tweedy, in Golden Smog, a loose collective of artists from a number of Midwestern bands.

Like many bands who play what has come to be known as “alternative-country rock,” the late Gram Parsons is something of a guiding star for The Jayhawks. Recently, the band had the opportunity to play with Emmylou Harris, who sang with Parsons at the end of his tragically short life, and they covered Gram’s “I’ll Sweep Out the Ashes In the Morning.” While they may not have Emmylou on hand for the song Friday, keyboardist Karen Grotberg did a terrific job of singing her part.

In addition to his own recording work, Louris has become a sought-after co-writer. Among the artists he’s worked with are The Chicks (“formerly the Dixie Chicks,” he noted). Together, they wrote “Everybody Knows,” which appeared on The Chick’s album Taking The Long Way Home. Louris recorded the song with the Jayhawks for their 2018 album Back Roads and Abandoned Hotels, which gave the band’s take on songs Gary had written were and which were originally recorded by other artists.

The band has something of a connection to the DMV. Gary told the audience, “My wife and I just love this area.” Stephen McCarthy, who lives in Virginia and has played with The Jayhawks on and off over the years, played guitar with them on at The Birchmere on Sept. 15.

The set included songs from across the span of The Jayhawks’ long career. There were early songs from the Olson-Louris period: “Waiting for the Sun,” “Blue,” “I’d Run Away,” and “Nothing Left to Borrow.” The 2003 album Rainy Day Music got the most play: “Angelyne,” “Tampa to Tulsa,” “Tailspin,” “Save It for a Rainy Day,” and “All the Right Reasons.” That last one, Gary said, is “for anyone who’s found love later in life,” as he has. 

Stream “All the Right Reasons” by The Jayhawks on YouTube:

The set kicked off with “Backwards Women,” followed by “This Forgotten Town,” and also included “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,”  “Trouble,” “Dogtown Days,” “Smile,” and a relatively recent song, “The Quiet Corners and the Empty Spaces,” from 2016’s Paging Mr. Proust. For the encore, they played their own “Sound of Lies” and “Big Star,” and ended with a cover of Billy Walker’s “Down to My Last Cigarette,” which featured Karen on vocals.

Freedy Johnston, who opened the show, clearly isn’t about self-promotion. And, like most of us, he isn’t fond of rodents. Though he’s never really broken out into the mainstream, he’s been recording music for more than 30 years, and playing it even longer. As he explained about a new song, “The Lonely Drummer,” (which he described as the saddest song he’s ever written, which is saying something) he started out playing — or at least trying to play — with bands in his home state of Kansas. But he couldn’t really play drums, so he got fired.

Freedy kicked off his set with “We Will Shine,” followed by “There Goes a Brooklyn Girl.” After “Tearing Down This Place,” he played “Darlin’,” a song about a couple in mourning that featured Aimee Mann on the recording. Freedy may not be a household name, but he’s someone who’s very much respected by his fellow artists and songwriters. The set continued with “This Perfect World,” then another new song. It was encouraging to see that Freedy is working on new material, as his latest album, last year’s Back on the Road to You, was his first new music in a decade. To close the set, Johnston played his most familiar song, “Bad Reputation.”

The Jayhawks are always a treat; they’re a tight unit who have a lot of experience playing together and it shows. Their timing and cohesion is impressive, and the songs are great. Getting to see Freedy was a real treat, too, as he’s been on my radar for a while, and he didn’t disappoint.


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