The Jayhawks soar, then and now

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

Last Modified: Jan 29, 2011 02:33AM

The Jayhawks never sold millions of records, did not have a hit song they could sell to a car commercial nor did any of its members ever date a supermodel or qualify for “Dancing With the Stars.”

Instead, the Minneapolis band, newly reformed with the original lineup after 16 years, quietly went about doing what bands with household recognition often lose track of: They created a songbook that endures, no matter what the year. It’s the reason why bands like this are ripe for discovery and later rediscovery while others seem to exhaust all their options the first time around.

Rediscovery is the purpose of this current tour, stopping for two nights at the Vic. The band performed its 1992 album, “Hollywood Town Hall,” in its entirety Thursday night, and it was a reminder of what made the Jayhawks’ sound so singular due to the lush yet tight-knit sound of the band, grounded by keyboardist Karen Grotberg and set flight by the scruffy electric guitar swathes of guitarist Gary Louris.

Louris and songwriting partner Mark Olson sang duet vocals on all the songs, much in the manner of old-time country music duos like the Louvin or Stanley brothers. Their contrasts — Louris’ smooth falsetto matched against Olson’s creaky nasal twang — were decidedly old-fashioned but had a kind of Midwestern mysticism to them. Just like how an overnight snowfall looks beautiful despite its complications, the shared vocals between Louris and Olson make the vulnerabilities in their lyrics feel comforting.

“Hollywood Town Hall” ushered the Jayhawks into the spotlight and made them one of the focal points of the roots music revival that would flourish later that decade. But the songs never really matched the label. At the Vic, the band melded power pop, folk and psychedelic flourishes throughout.

Olson’s exit following “Tomorrow the Green Grass,” the band’s 1995 album that it performed in its entirety Friday at the Vic, did not hobble the band, but it did change the focus. Aside from “Tampa to Tulsa,” sung by drummer Tim O’Reagan, there were no songs performed from any of the post-Olson albums. Instead, the focus was on that early period, buffered by B-sides and even a Rod Stewart cover (“Reason to Believe”) that the band managed to give the Jayhawks treatment.

Despite delivering two older albums in two nights, Louris announced the band is not “a museum piece” and will release a new album by summer. The two songs played from those sessions — the bright pop of “She Walks In So Many Ways” and the moodier “Black Eyed Susan” — presented a classic study in contrasts.

The night ended with “Lights,” a cover by songwriter Victoria Williams (Olson’s ex-wife) that the band stretched into noisy feedback, the night’s conclusion, which, like many things with this band, was neither expected nor neatly wrapped up.

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