Monday, November 20, 2006

Balloon Man

On Friday, I ventured down to Gotham to see my all-time favorite musician, Robyn Hitchcock, in concert at a venue called the Hiro Ballroom, which I had never actually heard of, but is actually a rather nice performance space in the basement of the Maritime Hotel at 16th and 9th.

For those unfamiliar with Robyn Hitchcock, he is a British singer/songwriter/guitarist whose first band The Soft Boys (1977-1980) was a strange melding of Beatles-esque pop, Captain Beefheart rhythmic strangeness, and Bob Dylan's mid-60s-era flights of lyrical fancy. (This couldn't have been more out-of-step with the British punk movement of the time, but The Soft Boys would influence bands like R,E.M. and The Replacements, to name two.) Propelling it all are Robyn's often surreal lyrics, which typically involve insects, fish, amphibians, and other elements of the biosphere. He's always seemed to me to be best described as "if Gary Larson--of The Far Side comic strip--wrote lyrics for The Beatles". He and his band The Egyptians (1986-1993) were college radio favorites in the mid-1980s (which is where I found him, though certainly not on Syracuse's college radio station, which at the time was devoted to Top 40--bleech), with all his albums from 1986 to 1989 routinely hitting number one on the college album charts. He was picked up by a major label in 1988 and came close to grazing the mainstream in 1991/1992 (at the insistence of his record label with whom he split not long afterward), but has more or been a cult figure (and elder statesman of alternative rock) ever since, and his return to independent record labels (and Internet distribution) has meant that he can follow his muse wherever it takes him. And on Friday it took him to the Hiro Ballroom in New York.

Robyn was playing with a backup band (something he hasn't done in a while, as he has tended to perform solo acoustic shows for the better part of the last 15 years) which he dubbed The Venus 3 (a play on The Minus 5, which also features many of these same musicians), comprising guitarist Peter Buck (R.E.M., and who has appeared on many Hitchcock albums dating back to the mid-1980s), bassist/guitarist Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, the Minus 5), and drummer Bill Rieflin (Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, of all things).

It was a very fun show; Robyn was in good spirits, and his between-song narratives were as surreal (and often hysterically funny) as ever, and the band played well together. McCaughey and Hitchcock had a good chemistry and McCaughey knew exactly what to say to get Robyn on one of his long, surreal tangents.

The album the band is touring behind, Olé Tarantula, is arguably Robyn's best since 1989's Queen Elvis (1996's Moss Elixir is up there, though). Unlike the last band album he did (1999's Jewels for Sophia), the songs on Olé Tarantula hang together better and seem more of a piece. It also helps that much of the album was recorded by the same band at about the same time and not compiled from random recordings made over an extended perood of time, which gave JFS rather a "patched-together" feel. They performed a good chunk of the new album (about half of it) as well as some oldies but goodies (reaching back to Robyn's Soft Boys days for 1980's "Queen of Eyes" and "I Wanna Destroy You"). The Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians albums Element of Light (1987) and (my personal favorite album of all time) Globe of Frogs (1988) were also heavily represented (a good thing).

He was even joined by special guest Morris Windsor (drummer for The Soft Boys and the Egyptians) who lent his distinctive vocal harmonies to the last several songs.

I've seen Robyn on every tour he did between 1989 and 1996 (which is easy when you live in New York) but regret that I went a good seven years before seeing him again (two shows at the now-closed Bottom Line in NYC on Halloween, 2003). I have always enjoyed his concerts (obviously). In 1998, Jonathan Demme made a concert film (à la his Stop Making Sense film of Talking Heads) of Robyn called Storefront Hitchcock, which gives a good sense of what a Hitchcock concert is like. It's available on DVD--in fact, I think I'll put it on now.

The set list (in more or less the proper order, as I recall) for Friday night was:

Adventure Rocket Ship
Sally Was a Legend
Olé Tarantula
Somewhere Apart
Queen of Eyes (The Soft Boys)
If You Were a Priest
Jewels for Sophia
Chinese Bones
N.Y. Doll
Underground Sun
Flesh Number One
The Authority Box
Madonna of the Wasps
(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs
Driving Aloud (Radio Storm)

Aw Shit Man (from The Minus 5's latest album)
Eight Miles High (the classic Byrds song)
I Wanna Destroy You (The Soft Boys)

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