Early on in the Robyn Hitchcock tribute show last Thursday at the Fillmore, a smiling Rhett Miller recalled when first saw the British songwriter, opening for R.E.M. in the ‘80s. “I’ve loved Robyn Hitchcock ever since I was weird,” he said, to scattered applause.
While the line between mainstream and subversive are not as clear these days, the offbeat, neo-psychedelic songwriter is undeniably a cult figure, which was evident on this belated 60th birthday bash planned by longtime fan Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. The bulk of the mixed-age crowd (filling only about ¾ of the venue) was clearly unfamiliar with his repertoire beyond minor hits like “Balloon Man” and “Madonna of the Wasps”. Predictably, Meloy and former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck received the most applause (Fan: “I met you at a show in Fresno in 1984!”/ Buck: “It wasn’t me.”).
Me? I knew about five Robyn Hitchcock songs walking in, which made the evening an exhilarating journey similar to a star-studded Harry Smith tribute show I attended back in college. Viva Hitchcock was the best kind of crash course on an artist with 30-plus years of material, and I do believe the singer can count dozens more as fans after last Thursday.
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Despite the charming and hilarious emceeing of Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, the evening got off to a slow start with stripped-down sets from Vetiver’s Andy Cabic, the Fruit Bats’ Eric Johnson, and Sean Nelson, who joked that the show was a benefit for those suffering from “Anglophilia”.
Hitchcock’s lyrical stories of worlds and characters both mundane and bizarre definitely shined in this context, but it took the Young Fresh Fellows’ loud, ageless power-pop to finally make the evening feel like a celebration. Miller followed with a fan-boy joyousness that further energized the crowd. It felt like a carnival during a surprise balcony performance of “Uncorrected Personality Traits” by the Hitchcockblockers—a barbershop quintet led by Meloy.
By the time the birthday boy took the stage, the crowd had grown in size and finally emitted a noise worthy of the occasion and venue. What came next seemed like a glimpse into an elite indie rock scenester house party. With his current band the Venus 3 (Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin) in tight form as the backbone, guest performers would jump on and off stage, each one clearly filled with admiration for Hitchcock and his work. The gray but youthful Hitchcock commanded the stage ably with a fine voice and witty anecdotes to match.
An energetic “I Wanna Destroy You” by his original band the Soft Boys was dedicated to one of the biggest muses of the ‘80s underground. “The song goes out to the late Margaret Thatcher,” Hitchcock said, “but we wrote it 30 years early, just to be safe.”
Far and away the highlight of the show was the encore, when Hitchcock led the group through an acapella rendition of his oddity “Furry Green Atom Bowl” that saw each performer (minus Buck) stomping and clapping up- and downstage. Next was an impromptu “Listening to the Higsons” which brought a most surreal sight: Colin Meloy and Peter Buck playing on adjacent drum sets.
The crowd called for a third encore, but Handler came out to burst our collective bubble. A magical moment occurred when a sporadic singing of happy birthday from the crowd reached the highest decibels of the night and prompted Hitchcock to address us from one of the balconies, clearly touched by the moment.
As I walked out, I wondered if each Hitchcock fan has one lyric that pushes their casual listening over the edge record-buying status. In my case, it’s definitely “I Am Not Me”, which Hitchcock performed midway through the show with Amanda Palmer. “Caroline!” the duo bellowed passionately, “No need to be so naked, we’ve been introduced!”
Photos and Review by David Sason
Setlist (from setlist.fm)
Andy Cabic (Vetiver)
Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis) (with Peter Buck) (with Peter Buck (R.E.M.) (guitar))
Raymond Chandler Evening
Sean Nelson (vocals) and Shenandoah Davis (keyboard)
The Wreck Of The Arthur Lee
Eric D Johnson (Fruit Bats)
Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus
Trams Of Old London
Queen Of Eyes
Young Fresh Fellows
Ted, Woody & Junior
I Watch The Cars
Only The Stones Remain
Rhett Miller (Old 97′s)
Beautiful Girl (with Sean Nelson)
Cynthia Mask (with John Moen (drums), Dave Depper (bass))
Balloon Man (with Peter Buck (R.E.M.)
The Hitchcockblockers: Amanda Palmer, Colin Meloy, Sean Nelson, Shenandoah Davis & Scott McCaughey
Uncorrected Personality Traits
Amanda Palmer & Robyn Hitchcock
I Am Not Me (with Jason Webley, John Moen)
Colin Meloy (The Decemberists)
Raining Twilight Coast (with John Moen (drums), Dave Depper (bass))
Daniel Handler (emcee, aka Lemony Snicket)
Gene Hackman (solo, accordion and vocals)
Robyn Hitchcock & Sean Nelson
I Feel Beautiful
Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3, plus Sean Nelson
Kingdom Of Love
I Love You
Adventure Rocket Ship
I Wanna Destroy You
Madonna Of The Wasps
Furry Green Atom Bowl
Listening To The Higsons (everyone, with Peter Buck and Colin Meloy on drum sets)
End Of Time