It is all the rage: the classic album performed in concert, whole and in sequence. And it works, when the band is right and the record is worth the rigor. The Jayhawks – the Minnesota cult band that, in the mid-Nineties, nearly became alternative country's first mainstream stars – have two of them: 1992's Hollywood Town Hall and 1995's Tomorrow the Green Grass (American). Both are out again in generously expanded form, so the band – reunited since 2008 with founding singer-guitarists Marc Olson and Gary Louris sharing the helm again – marked the occasion at New York's Webster Hall, opening a two-night stand with a total recall of Hollywood Town Hall. They played Green Grass the next night.
There is a predictability to this kind of show. You always know what is coming next. And the Jayhawks were not a band to stray far from carefully tuned strengths: Beatles-via-Burritos melodies; the emotional clarity of Louris and Olson's pine-smoke-Everlys harmonies. But Hollywood sounded resilient and vivid live, especially when Louris let his inner Neil Young out on lead guitar in songs like "Take Me With You (When You Go)." Olson admitted to the crowd that the band had never performed Hollywood this way before, and there was little interaction on stage, as if everyone was overconcentrating on recital.
That went away in the second hour: a more relaxed mix of Green Grass tunes, deeper catalog, a cover of Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe," and promising new songs from a studio album due this spring. The next time the Jayhawks come to town, they won't just have history on their side.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra Revisited
Less than an hour after the Jayhawks left the stage, the Mahavishnu Project – a repertory band, now in its tenth year, that celebrates guitarist John McLaughlin and his Seventies jazz-rock project, the Mahavishnu Orchestra – opened their second set at Iridium: a reinterpretation of the 1975 album, Visions of the Emerald Beyond. Drummer-founder Gregg Bendian pointed out that the record was McLaughlin's own favorite. It was, in its way, his bravest too, a step back from the incendiary virtuosity of 1971's The Inner Mounting Flame and 1973's Birds of Fire, into a fuller fusion of soloing fury, spiritual aria and sumptuous orchestral motion. Expanded to a ten-piece group for the occasion, the Project went beyond the original album's 40 minutes, taking lengthy delight in the elephant-march charge of "Eternity's Breath" and extending the acoustic modal spell of "Pastoral."
This is homage that should be experienced live. But the Project has also recorded a two-CD version of what I saw, as Return to the Emerald Beyond (Cuneiform). I tried to buy one after the show, but it was sold out at the merch table. Take that as a hint.