Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Concert Review: Jonah Werner

Nothing on stage but little, unshaven Jonah Werner, one guitar, one mike, and a roomful of stories and personality. And it's more than enough for a whole evening.

Jonah appeared at Christ Church Episcopal in Richmond, VA at 6:30 on Sunday, March 12, booked hastily by youth minister Jake Womack and well worth coming out on a Sunday evening for. His show ran just under ninety minutes, a non-stop hour and a half of songs and stories, upbeat and funny, peppered with pop culture and just enough evangelism to give it spice.

Jonah's style is a genre-defying acoustic folk-pop, often reminiscent of Barenaked Ladies at their best, extremely wordy and almost--almost--too smart. He squeezes his eyes shut, turning his face toward the ceiling and singing with the pure joy of getting to be a professional musician, then turns his eyes on his audience and bares his life for you with keen insight and flawless comic timing. From tracing the stages of adolescent romance ("friendationship" through "elationship" through "communicationship" and years past that long-regretted breakup), Jonah progressed into stories about his girl's spiritual awakening, into college, and back into childhood.

There's a thread of silly adolescent romance throughout his repertoire, a bit like Reggie and the Full Effect unplugged. Yes, Jonah's a Christian, evident throughout the show but not imposing, intimidating, or insistent. I'm sure he gets criticism from more conservative religious critics for the largely secular-comic nature of his show. He even has the gall to comment on the fact that a guy might like to watch the way a woman looks and moves--scandalous! But his largely teenaged audience relates, and the older audience members can remember what it was like.

As a budding acoustic guitarist myself, I noted Jonah's constant use of capo and unusual tunings, techniques I've always thought of as "cheating." I've been capoing every other song for a couple years now, and Jonah's got me thinking about tunings anew. His musicianship alone is worth coming to see him. Jonah coaxes, connives, and finally pounds an entire ensemble out of that little instrument: bass, drums, rhythms, and melodies emerge singularly or together, often while Jonah is telling a joke at the same time. The chord progressions start to get predictable and repetitive, and I craved a song or two of a more introspective nature, and the structure of the evening seemed a bit scattershot. But the similarity of the songs and consistency of the tone made for a remarkably even and theatrical set. Frankly, I can't fault Jonah for not being the kind of artist I would be in the same position. And when he started tapping the strings like Phil Keaggy, I was entirely sold.

Here at the PRM Command Center, we have no hesitation in promoting products, services, organizations, or people we approve of. Jonah Werner is such a product, a guaranteed home-run for the high school-college Napoleon Dynamite-Homestar Runner crowd, and delightful for their parents as well. Book him for your youth group. Now. But stretch out your face muscles before you go to the show, though: you're gonna be smiling and laughing a lot.

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