The Jayhawks with Kirsten Jones, January 18, 2011, The Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Before the Jayhawks took the stage, the dance floor swelled. A roadie rolled towels, placing them with care beside each instrument. It hinted at what was to come: a sweat-soaked, carefully chosen set.
The sold-out event was both a celebration of, and a reunion by, an influential alt-country outfit. This nod to Americana aptly occurred in a Canadian city known for its roots-rock scene. The Minneapolis five-piece’s arrival in Toronto coincided with the reissue that day of its seminal records: Hollywood Town Hall (1992) and Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995).
Males in plaid shirts and jeans dominated the audience; they wore Wilco hats and faded Neil Young buttons. They drank beer from plastic cups and sang along. These blue-collar dudes were proficient at the air guitar too, but when they tried to match lead guitarist Gary Louris note-for-note, it proved as difficult as a date with Guitar Hero.
Louris and co-founder Mark Olson first reunited for a record (Ready for the Flood) and some solo shows last year. They had so much fun that they decided to round up the rest of their bandmates, circa 1995, for a full reunion. Bassist Marc Perlman, keyboardist Karen Grotberg and drummer/vocalist Tim O’Reagan rounded out the lineup.
Just as the Jayhawks reunited, this night was also a reunion of music lovers and friends who first fell for these catchy songs more than 15 years ago. Guys hugged and high-fived prior to the show, readying themselves for the nostalgic trip.
The harmony-laden affair did not disappoint. Olson’s vocals were a little rusty, but Louris made up for this with a good deal of fuzzed-out effects throughout on his electric guitar. He also took time to noodle his way up and down the neck for some spirited solos.
As expected, the set list drew heavily from the reissued records. An energetic version of “Wichita,” from Hollywood Town Hall, opened the show; more than 18 years on, the song still resonates. From there, for the next 90 minutes, the Jayhawks trotted out song after song of classics. Highs included “Bad Time,” “True Blue,” “I Run Away,” “Nevada, California,” and the closer, “Waiting For the Sun.” The ode to Olson’s former love Victoria Williams (“Miss Williams’ Guitar”) also shone. A new disc is mixed, and the band previewed a few of these tunes as well.
While the harmonies were out of tune on a few songs, they were heartfelt throughout. The songs lingered long, and, with each chorus sung, memories flooded back. For those in attendance, that’s all that mattered.
Local alt-country songstress Kirsten Jones and her band opened with a tight set of songs, mainly from The Mad Mile, which Louris produced.