You’d think a band called the Jayhawks would visit this area regularly, but the Minneapolis band hasn’t stopped by too frequently. Its previous visit was almost five years ago, in November 2011, at the Beaumont Club (remember that place?). Before that, you’d have to go back to the mid-1990s and the Bottleneck in Lawrence, where the Jayhawks dropped by twice.
But after Tuesday’s show at Knuckleheads, lead singer and guitarist Gary Louris said the band would return to Kansas City sooner rather than later. And for good reason. They put on a rousing show that captivated an appreciative crowd of nearly 450 people.
The Jayhawks, like many groups, aren’t the band they used to be. They are down to two founding members, Louris and bassist Marc Perlman. Tuesday, they were joined by Tim O’Reagan, their longest-tenured drummer, and keyboardist Karen Grotberg, who has been on board consistently since 2008. They got help from multi-instrumentalist Jeff Lyster, who laid down backing vocals and played rhythm guitar and occasionally pedal steel guitar.
Their performance showcased the band’s forays into music that visits a variety of styles: pop, folk, country and rock. The Jayhawks were branded a country/alt-country rock band from their inception, which goes back to the mid-1980s, and deservedly so. They opened the show with one of those songs, “Waiting for the Sun,” a twangy rock song undergirded with some Crazy Horse electric guitar, recalling a few ’70s bands that injected heavy country flavors into their rock.
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But even on that song, the Jayhawks displayed their affinity for pop and for progressions that take their melodies into varied terrains that recall Gram Parsons, for sure, but occasionally melodists like Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Paul Simon and Crowded House.
The Jayhawks are touring on “Paging Mr. Proust,” their ninth studio album, and they featured it heavily this evening. The set list featured more than half of its songs.
It also visited their best-known and favorite albums, like “Tomorrow the Green Grass” and songs like the wistful but honeyed ballad “Blue” and “I’d Run Away,” a funky-bluesy love ballad lacquered — like so many of the Jayhawks’ songs — with harmonies and built on thoughtful chord progressions and song structures.
Grotberg and O’Reagan applied lockstep harmonies all night. On a few songs, like “Bottomless Cup,” Louris turned lead vocals over to O’Reagan and delivered harmonies.
The show took one conspicuous but appreciated turn: during “Ace,” a track from “Proust” that indulges in some sonic errancy — a gust of blues deranged with some feedback and other effects. Think of Jeff Tweedy’s and Wilco’s expeditions on “A Ghost Is Born.”
Otherwise, the show was a gust of melodies, harmonies and well-crafted songs. On “Proust,” the Jayhawks venture into some familiar but refreshing territories. “Lovers of the Sun” sounded like an Association song. “Stumbling Through the Dark” sounded like something born in the golden age of jangly indie rock. “Save It for a Rainy Day” felt like succulent and taproot ’70s pop.
On a couple of songs, including the encore, “Angelyne,” the band was joined by the openers, Folk Uke (guitar and ukulele), a superduo that comprises Amy Nelson, daughter of Willie, and Cathy Guthrie, daughter of Arlo.
Their opening act was a mix of music and comedy with a PG-17 rating (one of their songs went “I feel fertile tonight … Knock me up if you love me”). It also included a cover of “California Stars” from “Mermaid Avenue,” a collection of Woody Guthrie (Cathy’s grandfather) lyrics set to melodies written by Wilco and Billy Bragg.
The Jayhawks closed with “Tailspin,” a rousing, melodic folk-rock anthem buttered with harmonies that bears a faint resemblance to Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” Its lyrics betrayed the stir and jubilation of its music, but that was kind of the point of the whole night: Sink your teeth into the melodies and grooves and dance and sway along. It inspired another outburst from a crowd whose reaction seemed to surprise the headliner.
Waiting for the Sun, Leaving the Monsters Behind, Somewhere in Ohio, Stumbling Through the Dark, Lovers of the Sun, Save It for a Rainy Day, Pretty Roses in Your Hair, Comeback Kids, Bottomless Cup, Blue, Ace, Tampa to Tulsa, Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces, All the Right Reasons, The Devil Is In Her Eyes, I’d Run Away. Encore: Settled Down Like Rain, Angelyne, I’ll Be Your Key, I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, Tailspin