Tuesday, June 4, 2013
For many reasons, I rarely write concert reviews. The main one being, there isn’t a lot of point. It happened. It’s not like a record, which can be found and enjoyed by other people at any time. Some nights an artist or band may not play up to their potential, so a bad review may not be an accurate reflection of their usual performances, or vice versa. However, every once in a while I’m either filled with all kinds of thoughts during a show that I feel that I have to share (whether you like it or not!), or simply need to sort out my thoughts about what just happened. In this case, I am trying to figure it all out.
My friend Jeff and I originally saw Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians play in the fall of 1989 at the old Pine Street Theater in Portland, Oregon. We were new friends and new to college. This was the first concert of dozens that we would see together as friends over the years. Hitchcock was touring in support of his 1989 album Queen Elvis. This was the second time I had seen him perform. What made those old Robyn Hitchcock shows so entertaining was his unceasing ability to tell amusing stream of thought stories as an introduction to nearly every song. He would ramble on and on throwing one’s mind down dizzying spirals of nonsense and moments of poignancy before launching into an oddly heartfelt Beatles inspired tune. Jeff was new to Portland, having grown up near Los Angeles, so he was fascinated by the intimacy of the venue and the pure inanity of the light “show.” He was used to seeing bands in 3,000 seat venues, while here in tiny Portland; I had seen many of the same bands on the same tours with 200 to 300 people in attendance. Meanwhile, I went through a fit when we walked into the Pine Street to see several rows of chairs lined up in front of the stage – something I had never seen before then or since.
With a small nod to nostalgia, we went ahead and attended another Robyn Hitchcock show as he tours with the Venus 3 in support of his newest album Love from London. I had continued to buy Hitchcock’s many releases over the years, but my interest has waned. Personally, I felt he peaked with his second solo acoustic album Eye in 1990 and after seeing him perform multiple times between 1988 and 1998; I had stopped attending in recent years. Yet, there we found ourselves, 23 and a half years older, on a Monday night, checking the time, because we were both facing an early morning of work and responsibility ahead of us.
The night began with the Peter Buck Band (or Peter Buck of R.E.M. with the Venus 3?) performing new songs that he has been working on for a solo record (he said a new single was released that day – I didn’t investigate). It’s all become a little incestuous. Buck has served as a guest on several Hitchcock albums throughout the years and now that both seem to live in the Northwest, they seem to be sharing a band. The Venus 3 has involved many Seattle punk rock luminaries from Young Fresh Fellows and the Fastbacks. It was surreal seeing Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks and many other bands (not to mention prolific good guy producer) and Bill Rieflin, who I didn’t realize had become R.E.M.’s drummer in the later years. This shocked both Jeff and I, as we have always associated his powerful style with the industrial bands we cut our teeth on 20 some odd years before like Swans, Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Lard and KMFDM. This would not be the only thing that would throw us off our game.
We now know why Peter Buck was not R.E.M.’s vocalist. He is a great guitarist and helped form a legendary band’s signature sound, but as a front man, his voice is not appealing. Neither were his new songs. They sounded generic - a bar band blues that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Friday night at a suburban Applebee’s bar. Personally, I was not impressed. However, a few songs in, local hero Corin Tucker, famously of Sleater-Kinney and now her own band, stepped in to sing two songs. They were both excellent. Musically, they fit her strong voice to a tee and she sang with her usual soulful passion. Buck and Bloch even played guitar lines reminiscent of Tucker’s own style. Then, Buck called out to the audience to bring up Mike Mills, his long time band mate from R.E.M. for a flawless rendition of his 1984 “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.” This partial ad hoc R.E.M. reunion brought the phones out in force as much of the crowd pushed closer to the stage like the Paparazzi. I felt like maybe I was witnessing something special – something one of a kind and spontaneous – but at the same time, they just broke up within the last year and the okay country jangle of that old song brought back some memories and made me realize that I never bothered to try to see R.E.M. live. They were always a band where I liked a few songs here and there, but was not really a fan. After that moment, the set returned to Buck’s stale songs and goofy vocals.
It was all so strange. Peter Buck, an actual member of the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame, with his fancy guitar, was opening for Robyn Hitchcock at the tiny Doug Fir Lounge. Jeff and I were confused and not sure what to make of any of it. Front and center at the stage was a guy who dressed and emulated Michael Stipe from the “Losing My Religion” era, local news reporter Kyle Iboshi was standing to Jeff’s left, and we had 40 year old blond drunk party girls dancing and texting and taking pictures in front of us – as if they were forever 21. Before Robyn Hitchcock took the stage, we were confounded and exhausted.
Robyn Hitchcock finally took the stage and surprisingly, the crowd only thinned slightly (people seemed to know that all this weird opening act stuff was going to go down – though the ad just mentioned Peter Buck as a “special guest”). He started with a few acoustic numbers and then essentially the same band that played the first set returned and they played a variety of tracks from his last 25 years worth of records (though I could've used "Wax Doll"). The performance was solid and entertaining, but severely lacking his signature story telling. It lacked the spontaneity of all of those old shows I had seen so damn long ago.
I was hoping that writing out what we had witnessed would help make sense of the confusion I felt during the show and after. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. It is still confusing. Maybe I have seen too many concerts. Maybe I’m too jaded to just let go and have fun at what seemed to be a festive celebratory environment, or maybe my interests have changed. And though the Peter Buck set had the highest high of the evening with the quick appearance of Corin Tucker and secondly the Mike Mills led song, the best part was seeing Robyn Hitchcock again. Unfortunately, I have seen him do so much better.
* original painting by Robyn Hitchcock