By consensus of the audience in front of him, more than 25 years had passed since Marshall Crenshaw last performed in Kansas City. Saturday night, he ended that drought with a charming one-man show in the Gospel Lounge inside Knuckleheads.
He opened with two from his debut, self-titled album, and both showcased his knack for crafting songs steeped in ’50s and ’60s pop that sound deceptively simple: “There She Goes” and “Not for Me.” Alternating between electric and acoustic guitar, he filled the rest of the 90-minute set with some of his best-known songs, a few recent songs and plenty of wry one-liners. He introduced “Just Passing Through” as a “joyous song about mortality” and “Better Back Off” as a “happy song about anxiety.” And during that one, he was blindsided by the sound of a train passing outside, but he recovered quickly and picked up the song about where he left off.
The 55 fans who filled the room were perfect guests. They listened closely, they applauded heartily, they shouted requests. He rewarded them by redeeming a few, including “Vague Memory,” which he nailed despite a disclaimer that he probably wouldn’t, and “Fantastic Planet of Love.” He also showed off his underappreciated guitar skills. The instrumental that ended “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” ignited one of the show’s loudest ovations.
Crenshaw tours these days with the Bottle Rockets as a backing band, but his songs stood up to the solo-acoustic delivery.. His pop craft is so refined that his melodies stand up to the slightest arrangement. Stripped to guitar and vocal, the lyrics, and their often bittersweet sentiments, resonated deeper.
The warmest moments arose when he played his classics, like “Whenever You’re On My Mind,” “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” “Mary Anne” and the insanely catchy “Cynical Girl,” all of which, in one way or another, convey his commitment to love and romance, despite the hard knocks he’s suffered. The jazzy “Dime A Dozen Guy” was another highlight — a song about watching a former girlfriend “tear up the town” with an inferior guy.
For two of his encores, he covered “Endless Sleep” by rockabilly artist Jody Reynolds and “Twenty-Five Forty One,” a Grant Hart tune. But before that, Crenshaw went way back to his beginnings: “Something’s Gonna Happen,” a track he recorded for Shake Records. It’s a jaunty song about romance and betrayal — “Just forget about your boyfriend/and I’ll forget about my girlfriend” — but it nearly 30 years later, it still sounds as timeless as almost anything Crenshaw has written. He may have been scarce around here the past 25 years, but his music has never left some of us.