or, a setlist that begins with "I Often Dream of Trains" and has two songs from Black Snake, Diamond Rôle can't go wrong
Robyn Hitchcock is one of my favorite musicians, ever. Period. From the moment I discovered him in a 1985 dual review of Fegmania! and a Katrina and the Waves album (Waves songwriter/guitarist Kimberly Rew was in the Soft Boys with Robyn) in Spin, Robyn's pop smarts and his dazzlingly erudite, surreal lyrics endeared him to me to no end.
I used to complain that Robyn didn't play here in Nashville nearly enough. From his Nashville debut at the Bluebird Café in 1990 through 2004, Robyn usually did a show here every five to seven years. However, once he recorded Spooked in early 2004 at Woodland Studios right here in Music City, Nashville has become a regular stop on the Hitchcock Express.
Unfortunately for me, this has been a case of "watch out, you might get what you ask for." His shows beginning with that January 2004 gig at the Bluebird during the Spooked sessions haven't been to my taste, causing me to label them "Robyn Hitchcock's Jug Band Christmas." They've been weighed down with the inferior material from Spooked, they were guest-star heavy, and all of them seemed to feature about seventeen Basement Tapes covers.
I'm sure those shows were a fun change of pace for Robyn, but for me, they're short on the Hitchcock I really love. I'd read setlists from shows in other towns, and he'd be whipping out "Flavour of Night," "Airscape," "Globe of Frogs," and all the other songs I wanted to hear, but here, umm, no, it's more Spooked for you. Not even getting to see surprise guest John Paul Jones at the 2006 Belcourt show - playing mandolin the entire night, no less - could cure my Hitchcock melancholy.
Until tonight. Tonight's Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 show at the Exit/In was so good, it could cure cancer. As Robyn said to me during a brief chat afterwards, "well, it's a rock band." And they surely rocked it. From the moment Robyn took the stage tonight, said "My mother was sixteen coaches long, and this song is about her," then went straight into the reverie of "I Often Dream of Trains," Robyn and his bandmates could do no wrong.
Featuring longtime accomplices Pete Buck of R.E.M. on guitar, Young Fresh Fellow / Minus 5 kingpin and auxillary R.E.M.ster Scott McCaughey on bass, and Bill Rieflin, the current occupant of the Bill Berry Drum Chair, on, well, drums, the Venus 3 has evolved into a true band rather than a randomly assembled supporting cast. Their current album, Goodnight Oslo, though completely guided by Hitchcock's vision and sensibilities, benefits from a collaborative feel and dynamic interplay that's been missing from Hitchcock's work since the demise of the Egyptians in the early '90s.
Tonight's set offered many delights. Two lesser-played sizzlers from Hitchcock's 1981 solo debut, Black Snake, Diamond Rôle, "Out of the Picture" and "The Lizard," thrilled aficionados. 1986's Lennonesque piano workout "Somewhere Apart" got a frantic guitar-heavy re-make/re-model, and I never realized how Goodnight Oslo's "Up To Our Nex" was built on a Bo Diddley beat until hearing Rieflin pound it out onstage. "Airscape," one of Hitchcock's most beautiful, enduring songs, was an exercise in crystalline perfection, and I was pleasantly surprised that a personal favorite, "Vibrating" from 1988's Globe of Frogs, made it into the setlist. "I'm Falling" was gorgeous, "Authority Box" commanding, and "Goodnight Oslo" was even more haunting than the studio version.
But even with all of that going for the show, the two biggest highlights of the evening were:
- "Beautiful Queen." While I never disliked this song from 1996's Moss Elixir at all, I wouldn't have listed it as one of his 20 or 40 or maybe even 60 best songs. For me, it was always overshadowed by its predecessor on the album, the chiming, ruminative "Speed of Things." Tonight, however, it became the linchpin of the setlist. Hitchcock and Buck have added a "noodly prelude" (in Robyn's words after the show) whose dual-guitar interplay builds tension and sets the mood, then releases into the powerful groove of the song. And tonight, that groove was amped exponentially beyond the familiar studio version and just kept getting more and more urgent as the song progressed. "Beautiful Queen" didn't crescendo so much as continuously build right through the end, thanks to remarkable interplay between all four bandmembers. I haven't heard anything this breathtakingly hypnotic since the version of "What Goes On" on the Velvet Underground's 1969 Live. Simply amazing.
- "Listening to the Higsons." The night became even more R.E.M.y when Mike Mills joined the band for the final encore. Mills and McCaughey took over guitar duty, Rieflin moved to bass, and Buck slid behind the drum kit, while Robyn moved to mic-wielding cock rock god. As the band raised an unholy primal racket, Hitchcock paraded the stage in mock rock star mode, gesticulating grandly, leaning into Mills' mic for joint "whooa-ooooh"s, and clearly having fun. But it was only half-parodic, because he was every bit the rock star tonight.