Coming home from work on Friday I serendipitously turned to the local college radio station where they were mentioning that Robyn Hitchcock would be performing nearby. I had to go. He was easily my favorite artist back when I was in high school. He combined a raw intensity with his bizarre sense of humor to define “alternative rock” well before it had crystallized into a tightly scoped marketing term. And unlike They Might Be Giants, he would always retain his coolness because I never ended up having to be tortured hearing “regular people” annoy me by reciting his lyrics in public places.
Seattle’s Johanna Kunin opened up for him. Her songs were permeated with an old-school organ sound: generally some sort of arpeggiation in one hand with a one note harmony played with the other. (Think “No Quarter” from Houses of the Holy and you’re pretty close.) She’d sing about fireflies and blueberries in a borderline nigh-yodel while her cohort would play guitar, percussion, or a child’s xylophone. For some songs she’d switch between mikes to make a home-made echo effect, and often her tunes would simply end abruptly: apparently full cadences are considered too traditional out West anymore.
I’m highly banter conscious. It’s funny, just the right little prefaces and introductions can completely win me over or turn me against an artist. Somehow, I didn’t quite feel that she connected with us when she could have broken down the invisible east-west barrier and given us all some sort of mystical license to cool. Instead she remained a slightly nervous outsider glad we had given up the basketball mania to come to the show. (We’re Robyn Hitchcock fans… how many of us have ever really cared about sports? Really.) After singing a song about a ghost, she took a much needed drink of water and sighed, “nothing like bottled water to chase the spirits away.” (?!)
I stalked the scene walking up to random people trying to find other Hitchcock fanatics and discovered my banter was pretty off as well. One guy said he was there to see R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, and others were simply drug there by their dates. The die hard fans were generally women that must have been ten years older than me, though I did meet a couple of guys in their forties that were following the tour around. They said that one night Robyn played with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and that one time he’d simply played the entire White Album for a concert.
Robyn came out alone and treated us to a solo acoustic piece. Then the drummer came out and they did Queen Elivis together. He could have stopped right there and I would have felt like I got my money’s worth. I think Buck came out next, and then the bass player. They stayed acoustic for a few songs until Buck switched to his signature “clanky” electric sound and they played a mix of older and newer material. I was really afraid that it was going to be all new stuff, but they actually did Balloon Man, the “There’s a House Burning Down” song, and Brenda’s Iron Sledge.
I was really hoping for some serious guitar action, but it never came to pass. Hitchcock and Buck stuck pretty much to straight-up rhythm and there was little in the way of out-of-control/improvisational rocking out. The banter was really weird though. Robyn wistfully spoke of the days before remote control when all we had was ectoplasm. Later he would manage to use the word solispsic to introduce a song… and he described politics in the eighties as being a sort of a conservative glacial period. I was disappointed when he made a couple of digs at Catholics and Karl Rove, though: I can hear that sort of thing from people with much lower IQ’s than Robyn’s on just about any talk radio station, so it seemed a bit pointless. No one talks about ectoplasm, though, so I’d rather have heard more about that.
I did manage to pick up another one for the “things that make me feel stupid file.” Waiting in line for the autographs, I discovered that Buck was a pretty nice guy. The bass player, Scott MacCaughey, was extremely personable and talked enthusiastically about which songs from “Eye” they were thinking of playing. But when I got to Robyn, he asks me “Who’s it for?” as I approached him with my CD’s. “Uh… me,” I said, not understanding the question and feeling vaguely selfish for not getting the signature dedicated to some other Robyn Hitchcock fan instead. There it was… my moment with a childhood hero and I don’t even have the sense to tell him my name so that he could give me a proper autograph. This is of course going on while I’m frantically trying to rip off the stickers on the CD case that are impossible to remove without specialized tools.
I felt very silly and not very clever and on the drive home I tried to think of something obliquely appropriate for a Robyn Hitchcock fan to do after a show like that, but never really came up with anything.
Update 3/28/07: Pictures from the concert are available here. I think I even saw the guy taking the pictures. I know I saw his wife walking by with the playlist… lucky girl. Too quick for me!
Update 3/29/07: You, too, can hear the sounds of Johanna Kunin! This recording of “Blueberry” really isn’t that bad. It has a fresh sound that’s fairly unique and is actually kind of fun.
Update 3/29/07: I just feel it to be my civic duty to confirm that Peter Buck did indeed look like somebody had just told him his cat had been sucked into an irony vortex.
Update 4/10/2007: You can hear a live studio recording of Robyn Hitchcock playing his new song “Adventure Rocket Ship” along with a pretty good interview here from WNYC. It’s neat hearing Robyn explain how he ended up touring with most of R.E.M. and also why he wrote the songs on his latest album the way that he did.