By now, it should be apparent that Gary Louris can exist in all sorts of different habitats. A member of the Jayhawks since the mid-late 1980s and the group’s kingpin since 1996, he’s seen the band through multiple lineup shifts and a gradual sonic shift from edgy, slightly twanged-up, harmony-drenched roots-rock to layered, lovely, expansive pop.
But here was Louris, walking to a tiny East Nashville stage and performing what was billed as his first-ever solo-acoustic show. He seemed a lonely and odd presence at first, strumming his way through a somber version of “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”, his reedy voice lending a (perhaps unduly) poignant feel to a simple love song. Stripped of the buoyant backing that marked the recorded version, the song began stately and brave and finally snapped under the pressure, somewhere around the “flows to the ocean/sea of devotion” line.
Then, the dude pretty much took command of the proceedings, bursting into a luminous take on “Settled Down Like Rain” that sounded more than good — it sounded masterful, and kind of important, right there at the corner of Woodland and 12th.
Soon enough, Louris abandoned the solo acoustic format and called up guests including popsmiths Will Kimbrough and Josh Rouse, club owner/bass player Michael Grimes, erstwhile Fastballer Miles Zuniga, drummer David Gehrke, guitarist/songwriter Gary Nicholson and bluesy singer Jessie Alexander (Nicholson and Alexander had recently penned a song with Louris). The bevy of pals was sometimes supportive, and sometimes a bit aurally disheveled. The unison falsetto chorus on “Blue” turned a gorgeous song into pure camp, but a group effort on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” quickly righted the ship.
Louris’ encore included the aptly titled Grand Funk hit “Bad Time”, a song that now sounds tired even when its singer is wide awake, and “A Break In The Clouds”, one of the Jayhawks’ overlooked gems. “Every time that I see your face/It’s like cool, cool water running down my back,” Louris sang, while Grimes played merrily along, laying down a melodic bass part and wearing a happy kid’s smile.
Asserting the continued existence of the Jayhawks and talking about an already completed album that should arrive in 2003 for public consumption, Louris allayed any fears that the “solo” gig was the beginning of the band’s end. It was simply a one-off, a good-natured gathering of buddies, drinkers, scenesters and alt-gawkers on a late-summer Monday night, with flashes of intensity and beauty that belied the casual, beery room.