20 November 2008

borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered '80s

robyn hitchcock at the world cafe live.

i've already seen three robyn concerts this year (so many that i didn't even write about one of them, apparently.) tonight, muchas gracias a sñr uvawitz (hm, grape-brain?), made it four, if you squint: much like the other one, this robyn has shockingly silvery hair that frequently drapes over his face. (if i were at all photoshop-savvy, i'd probably just go ahead and paste ms. carlson's signature tresses over alfred hitchcock's bald pate - in fact i'd be surprised if nobody's done it before.)

similarities mostly end there though; a more fruity comparison would be to the concert i reported on two weeks ago. both rh and db could rightly be called foundational figures of alternative (rock) music; both are not infrequently labeled eccentrics, though rh is decidedly one of the peculiar english variety whilst db, though apparently still not a u.s. citizen after fifty-some years of living here, ain't. jonathan demme filmed both of them (storefront hitchcock, added to netflix queue - check.) and like mr. byrne, mr. hitchcock is touring with some legacy material: here and elsewhere, he performed the music of his excellent album i often dream of trains, originally released in 1984, the same year, if you want to get technical, as stop making sense.

though that's mostly a technicality from perspective, seeing as how i grew up on stop making sense before i even started to in the first place, while i hadn't heard i often dream until about three years ago, and hadn't really digested it much until i bought yep roc's reish of it last year. not so my companion this evening, who, as she told robyn after the show, listened to his music throughout her childhood (this prompted a nearby fan to relate that her kids had "seen him in utero," which took him somewhat aback.)

not sure what to think about this thing of re-creating old albums/eras on stage, which seems to be happening increasingly often these years (i saw liz phair do it, for instance, and she's barely even a "veteran.") it's obviously a great gimmick to draw a crowd, even for still-active performers like david and robyn, and it is legitimately exciting as a fan. but it's somewhat worrisome as a trend, though perhaps i shouldn't worry so much.

in any event, moreso than byrne, (and certainly more than phair,) the performance hitch gave tonight felt no less refreshingly loose and natural for being under this semi-formal constraint. he disregarded the track sequence, for one thing, which is smart - knowing the setlist in advance always kills a bit of the excitement. and he didn't even play all the songs from the album, although i don't really know it well enough to be sure at the time. (it's trick too since various versions and reissues have had unusually variable tracklists for such a "classic," with substituted bonus cuts and whatnot.)

the memorable "i wish i was a pretty girl," for instance, only turned up briefly, playing over the loudspeakers before the show started, from, as it turned out, a cassette player which robyn carried on stage and then proceded to manually mangle to enjoyable audible effect. (one gets the sense that he doesn't care much for the song these days - although at one point it sounded like he was about to start playing it on guitar, before realizing it was a misstart.) he also skipped "furry green atom bowl" and maybe a couple others, but he played all of the truly essential and wonderful numbers from the album, of which there are many many greats, and also a bunch of related b-sides.

"it sounds great when you're dead" was the one i'd had in my head of late (so great to be able to hear something live the same day you'd been singing it to yourself) - he introduced that as "the good news" after the painstaking psychiatric self-inspection of the "very slow" "cathedral." but the wry-yet-touching post-break-up ballad "i used to say i love you" was the one that stuck with me afterwards. "trams of old london" was gorgeous; ditto the solo title track, which is also just a tad creepy. the hilarious atheist piss-take/group-singalong "ye sleeping nights of jesus" and jaunty fan-fave "my favorite buildings" (complete with shaker-egg and pocket trumpet!) were super-swell, and of course "uncorrected personality traits," in a cappella three-part harmony around a single mic, brought the house down.

gah, gotta get out of record-reviewing mode! what was really great about this show was how simple and low-key it was (just robyn and two dapper confederates, one of them apparently the guy from the band departure lounge; three guitars traded amongst them, a piano, and a few necessary toys) while still feeling impeccably crisp and clearly well-rehearsed (robyn writes some deceptively complicated guitar parts, and he's a killer at executing them.) his strangeness is very tidy and approachable, neatly contained in nonchalantly-delivered poetic tirades of absurdist quasi-nonsense in convolutedly perfect syntax and sometimes uncanny philosophical depth (prepared or spontaneous? it's hard to tell) and in snazzily screwy sartorial (the name of his buddy's label) choices: top hat (removed to reveal aforementioned silver shock), purple skinny jeans, jacket removed to reveal black and white polka-dot shirt, to match his black and white polka-dot stratocaster (larger dots on the shirt though, creating dizzying op effect.)

approachable guy too, a kindly old cynic, but a romantic too (he's pretty happy about the new president, one "who doesn't have voices inside his head.") t and i stuck around after to have him sign, uh, a silly flyer we found advertising the gig, and he was quite friendly about it. all told, just a lovely presence, and a truly good songwriter on quite a few levels.

the whole thing made me want to go and dig further into his catalog. and those nifty, completist-baiting reissue box sets are making it just too easy and tempting too... ah, pre-packaged nostalgia. if you don't have your own, you can always borrow it. and if not, you can probably buy it on amazon.

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