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For The Jayhawks, it's the music first and foremost

Somerville Theatre, Somerville, Mass., October 13, 2018

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The uninitiated may have thought The Jayhawks were going the covers route in concert by playing "Everybody Knows" or Jakob Dylan's "Gonna Be a Darkness" from the HBO show "True Blood."

But that wouldn't quite be accurate because The Jayhawks are touring behind "Back Roads and Abandoned Motels," ostensibly songs at least in part written by The Jayhawks lead singer and guitarist Gary Louris, but recorded by others.

Not only did the Minneapolis alt.-country mainstays claim those songs as their rightful own, but when coupled with songs only identified with The Jayhawks, it was easy to see why the quintet has been soldiered on quite capably for more than three decades.

Louris high-pitched vocals are about as strong as ever whether singing one of the catalogue chestnuts ("Blue") or material from the new album.

While Louris handled most of the lead vocals, keyboardist Karen Grotberg took center stage on "Come Cryin' To Me," (also recorded by The Dixie Chicks) while drummer Tim O'Reagan did so on "Gonna Be a Darkness." But Grotberg and O'Reagan also often fleshed out the vocals with harmonies or backing vocals to Louris and giving the material much flavor. Hearing more lead singing from Grotberg would have been welcome.

One of the beauties of The Jayhawks was the musical diversity displayed throughout the 110-minute show: rock to plaintive ballads to alt.-country to Laurel Canyon sounds. Even a bit of pop.

Louris' electric or acoustic ("All the Right Reasons") could underpin a song, until that is newest member John Jackson might spike it with mandolin or Grotberg on keyboards. She tended to be more prominent sonically as the night wore on.

Louris was not the most charismatic of performers - at times a bit hard to understand when talking. Given the story behind the new album, more in-depth backdrop about the process of writing a song or two would have been most welcome.

Louris did take the crowd to heart though. The crowd shouted out a number of requests throughout, causing Grotberg to joke that they should do a second show with Louris chiming in that it should of songs not on the set list. But The Jayhawks did played three requests not on the set list, and the band had no trouble dusting them off.

This was an evening where it was pretty much about the songs and the delivery thereof. Closing with a strong "Save It For a Rainy Day," "Tailspin," a surprising cover of Grand Funk Railroad's "Bad Time" and the knockout punch of Golden Smog's (Louis and bassist Marc Pearlman were in that super group) of the tour de force of "Until You Came Along," The Jayhawks showed that ultimately it is the music first and foremost.