Kirsten Jones/The Jayhawks
Toronto’s own Sweetheart of the Rodeo was visibly tickled pink to be opening for her recent producer, Gary Louris, if not mentors in the form of his recently reformed Jayhawks. Launching into the country-rock-hungry crowd with a tightly played set of songs from her latest, The Mad Mile, Kirsten was all-confidence and clearly all-smiles. In truth, she seemed in a hurry to deliver her goods so she could concentrate on taking in this first show of the Jayhawks’ reunion tour.
Equipped with a strong band to deliver a torqued-up version of the goods, Kirsten was joined by Kevin Zarnett (guitar and backing vocals), Mitch Girio (bass), Robin Pirson (drums) and the phenomenal Bob Egan (pedal steel). An added bonus was the guest appearance of the ever-sultry Suzie Ungerleider (O Susanna), providing backing vocals on Jones’ blissful “Bittersweet Grand Canyon”.
Egan’s aggressive pedal steel whipped up the party potential from Mad Mile’s country-kissed originals, Jones revealing her love of the genre, while teeming with the confidence of her band’s polished sound before a hometown crowd. To her credit, they paid full attention to highlights including the hard-hitting “I Don’t Want To Live Like This” but seemed equally sold on her softer numbers like the stunning “I Will Love You Now” and the equally dramatic “Losing Something”. A fine showing and an enthusiastic set-up to her favourite band.
The Jayhawks arrived on stage with little fanfare, letting their music do all the talking. The reunited tag team of Mark Olson and Gary Louris appeared somewhat distant, concentrating on their respective contributions, given the first date pressures of this much-lauded reunion. Yet, to their credit, their two voices still blend like few others.
It’s a sound that many of us grew up with and when their voices entwine around such alt-country classics as “Settle Down Like Rain“, “Wichita” and “Pray For Me”, it’s a treat that sounds like it was always meant to be, despite their occasional differences in direction. Chemistry is everything with this band and if, on this occasion, Louris turned up the dial for a more rockish edge to offset the rootsy contribution of his long-time partner, the music was all the better for its rejuvenated sound. This 23-song set rekindled an era and underlined the power of the original definition of alt-country, as it proved a massive group hug for longtime fans of this groundbreaking band.
Louris remains an accomplished, if understated, guitarist, shooting out sparks at will, while keyboard player, Karen Grotberg, played a large role with added harmonies and signature piano. Tim O’Reagan (drums) and Marc Perlman (drums) were all about precision as these early classics were revisited (this tour coincided with the re-release of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass), complete with a few chestnuts (“Let the Critics Wonder”) and some great new songs teased from their forthcoming release.
Olson stands alone in keeping things earthy and grounded in Gram territory, strumming his acoustic guitar, every bit the ‘country’ counterpoint to Louris’ country-rock leanings. Yet this is a band that works best from everyone’s contribution and the room was treated to many highlights, painstakingly recreated for the happy occasion of these two men coming together.
From the Louris-led “Two Hearts” with its audience singalong chorus and the sheer fun of “Bad Time” to the breathtaking “Blue” and a note-perfect “I’d Run Away”, this capacity crowd was putty in the band’s hands. There were sound problems and these were short, punchy treatments as opposed to drawn-out jams that might have made a great night even better.
Yet, the promise for the future of this legendary band was further realized by the inclusion of new tracks like the darkly enticing “Black Eyed Susan” and “She Walks In So Many Ways,” with its buoyant harmonies and strong, Byrdsian sway.
The Jayhawks are more than a band, based on their sturdy catalogue of unforgettable songs, spellbinding harmonies and noteworthy solos. They are the evolution of a much-cherished collection of influences from the ‘60s and ‘70s — artists like Roger McGuinn and the Byrds, Chris Hillman’s Flying Burrito Brothers and Sid Griffin’s Long Ryders with references to the Louvins, the Dillards and the Beatles. They cover a lot of ground, as proven on this night – but the best news of all is that, unlike these artists, they intend to continue with the promise of a tour next summer to support the new album’s release.