By Mark Guarino
Daily Herald Music Critic
The festival was called The Last Fling, but to the Jayhawks who headlined it in Naperville Monday, the suggestion may have been too close for comfort.
Fans of the Minneapolis country rock collective have witnessed the band’s identity crisis in the past few years. Critically acclaimed for 15 years but still struggling to break through to a wider audience, the band has been struck down with several personnel changes and a label shake-up that left its last album, one of its best, generally ignored.
With “Smile” (Columbia), its newest album, leader Gary Louris plows on, this time with a mission: to have songs specifically crafted as radio friendly. It worked: his single “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” has scored the Jayhawks new fans, but the question late Monday afternoon was, at what price?
The band has yet to play a club date proper in Chicago, instead relying on festival gigs where uninitiated fans might be. But the new approach leaves the band with curious company. At Sled Hill Monday, its set was preceded by a goofy cover band and then a brief routine from five kiddie dancers lip synching to N’Sync songs.
It gets worse: This week the Jayhawks start a month-long tour opening shows for matchbox twenty, the pinnacle of vapid radio product from the late ’90s.
Marketing decisions like that is indeed selling your soul to the devil, something major labels would not even sniff at. But to a band hailed for its artistic merit, true believers are left wondering how it might affect the music.
Not much. If the Jayhawks do break through to fans who prize the doe-eyed pap of heartthrob Rob Thomas, it would be a miracle. The band’s nearly two-hour show Monday was ripe with lush melodies, golden harmonies, sophisticated arrangements, and bittersweet lyrics dipped with blue-eyed soul.
Many of the band’s new songs were jubilant popcraft, with Louris adding a blast of harmonica on “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.”
They pleased older fans with gems like “Two Hearts” and “Blue,” and a country-tinged cover of “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” from the ’60s soul man William Bell. Drummer Tim O’Reagan sang lead for a raucous honkytonk take of David Wiffen’s “Lost My Driving Wheel” that was reminiscent of The Band’s early days.
But the real surprise was how much rock muscle the band flexed, stepping out of from its familiar Byrds-meets-Beach Boys territory. Louris and guitarist Kraig Johnson wielded an intense amount of cosmic-sounding distortion to burn several songs down to the ground and, including a surprise encore offering of Golden Smog’s “If I Only Had A Car.”