Since the early 1980s, the Jayhawks have crafted widescreen power-pop with country-western affectations, summoning an easygoing romanticism and a skyward sound that makes even their sad songs seem happy. In 2017, they could be considered underrated; they never quite rose as high in the critical canon or public imagination as similarly styled artists — judging from the crowd at the Port City Music Hall Tuesday evening, it seems they have not at all been discovered by younger generations.
They were born too late to have hits like Tom Petty, never got weird like Wilco, and lasted too long to evolve into myth like Big Star. More than 30 years into their career, however, they can still fill a room. A sturdy songbook, and crisp, professional stage affords a band that luxury.
The group was founded in the 1980s by co-songwriters Mark Olson and Gary Louris, and grew in popularity in the 1990s alongside the increasing interest in the alt-country movement. They generated two classic albums together: “Hollywood Town Hall” in 1992, and “Tomorrow the Green Grass” in 1995. By the late 1990s, Olson had left the group and only came back for a brief stint earlier this decade.
On this tour, Louris is again the sole frontman, and at this point the arrangement has been in place longer than the band was fronted by a duo. The powerful harmonies between the two men are missed, but Louris’ solo singing is as evocative as ever, his voice as bright and resonant as sunlight glinting off aluminum rooftops in the distance. If it has aged, then it’s hard to tell; he can still hit the high notes of challenging songs such as 2003’s “Stumbling Through the Dark.”
The set easily alternated between songs from their peak period and newer material, including selections from their excellent 2016 album, “Paging Mr. Proust.” The songs generally coasted at a pleasant mid-tempo; rather than hitting dramatic peaks and valleys, the set gently navigated up and down at coasting altitude. Occasionally, the band slowed the pace to perform affecting ballads such as the wistful, melancholic “Pretty Roses in Your Hair” and the ever-charming “All the Right Reasons,” and other times they’d get loud, milking the iconic intro to “Waiting for the Sun,” the opening song on “Hollywood Town Hall.”
While they are far from the kind of band whose best work is behind them — Louris seems scarcely capable of writing a bad song at all — the recent songs are mature, thoughtful compositions that aren’t as immediately electrifying as their work from 1993 through 2003. The band was aware of it, peppering the back end of the set with crowd-pleasers from “Tomorrow the Green Grass,” including “Blue” and the resounding “I’d Run Away,” and closing the show with their cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s “Bad Time.” These songs have spent decades resonating with listeners and naturally received bigger applause, but fans in attendance paid closer attention to the entire set than many bands are afforded. Perhaps they were aware that it’s uncommon to get over an hour of such extraordinary pop craftsmanship.
Robert Ker is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.