Jonathan Richman has undergone a number of metamorphoses over the years, from angst-ridden proto-punk to purveyor of second-childhood innocence to — thanks to his role in “Something About Mary” — a sort of bohemian Jiminy Cricket.
The preternaturally youthful 50-year-old singer-songwriter tried on all those guises over the course of a charming 90-minute set that brought the Knitting Factory — a scant six blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood — its first packed house since reopening in the wake of Sept. 11.
Always prone to performing at subdued volume, Richman toned things down even further at the onset of the evening, disengaging from the P.A. to sing the winsome “Springtime in New York” unmiked and unamplified — all the better, he explained, to communicate the song’s naked emotion.
Richman had no trouble conveying purity of emotion — be it the longing expressed in “Girlfren” (his sole nod to his earliest days with the Modern Lovers) or the wide-eyed wonder that exuded from the jaunty “Give Paris One More Chance.” That song — an oldie re-recorded on Richman’s new Vapor album “Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow”– took on a lighter, jazzier tone than the romping original, thanks in large part to the light touch of drummer Tom Larkins (the only accompanying musician on this tour).
At times, Richman can get a bit too caught up in his own goofiness — as he did during a pantomime-laced version of the “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar” (which isn’t as biting as that title might indicate). But on this evening, he took care in parceling out the sweetness and light, dropping in more wizened numbers like the advice-columnist ditty “Couples Must Fight” and the misty, mysterious title track of “Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow.”
While Richman is adamant about invoking his New England heritage in song — as if his chowder-thick accent left any doubt — he’s also very much a cosmopolitan. He proved that here by peppering the set with a handful of tunes sung in flawless Spanish — including a breezy “Con El Merengue” — and bidding the crowd goodnight with an expansive, a capella “Arrivederci Roma.” Richman’s rendition balanced the song’s bitter and sweet tones beautifully, making for an ideal lagniappe.