The Jayhawks’ “Mockingbird Time” Is A Most Unusual Comeback

Bands break up and bands reform, but it’s unusual to have a group’s founder turn over the keys to his fellow guitarist, songwriting pal and co-harmonizer, who in turn drives the music to new heights, only to have the Prodigal Folkie return and pick up right where they all left off sixteen years ago.

We loved The Jayhawks when Gary Louris was able to stretch his ample frame and take them from their roots-rock ghetto into being more of a classical Americana rock band, loved Smile and especially Rainy Day Music.  We loved that he no longer had to make room for Mark Olson’s quite different approach — loved that Louris could focus on riffs and hooks, self-harmonizing and gorgeous.  But damn if their reformation doesn’t seem to take the best of original band’s charms — their earnest evocation of the second side of Exile On Main Street, their Roger McGuinn sensibilities — and match it nicely with what Louris was doing when only his hands were on the wheel.

It was odd enough, though of course a clue giving hope to the original band’s fervent followers, that in the final phase of the break up period, circa 2008, Louris and Olson made an album together, like a divorced couple going on vacation.  The attraction clearly was still there, and on the superb “Bicycle,” we got a glimmer, a taste of what life might be like if the whole band pedaled together. In the annals of rock’n’roll, Louris has a unique ego, willing to share leadership with the man who’d turned it over to him in the back half of the 1990s.

And then this summer came “She Walks In So Many Ways,” with its chiming, Byrdsy Rickenbacker chords, and the sound of Louris and Olson harmonizing, the one voice tacking straight to the horizon (Olson), the other aiming for the sky (Gary Louris.) I remember hearing it come on the radio out West on a bright July afternoon, followed by Wilco’s “I Might,” and thinking that the Minneapolis band had a clear smack down over the boys from Chicago.  And now comes Mockingbird Time and it is almost entirely wonderful.

It begins powerfully, with the throbbing, declarative “Hide Your Colors,” Karen Grotberg’s rollicking piano underneath strings and a George Wilbury guitar solo.  And you immediately welcome back the status quo ante, the pre-Louris-led band.  By the time you’ve listened to “She Walks In So Many Ways” (for the thousandth time, since no doubt you’ve been playing it over and over), and get into the infectious “High Water Blues,” the old enthusiasms return, and with it the hope that this fine American band get, not just the recognition it deserves — it is widely recognized as a national gem, the Jayhawks certainly aren’t lacking in respect — but that it assume its rightful place in the top ranks of American bands.

The return of Mark Olson to the Jayhawks is like hearing a Midwest factory is back to full employment, that an orphaned language has regained a speaker.  Louris’ making room for him is a profile in musical courage.

Welcome back.

One Response to “The Jayhawks’ “Mockingbird Time” Is A Most Unusual Comeback”

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