Sunday, January 29, 2012

All-Seeing 'Eye': Robyn Hitchcock live

McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica is billed as California's largest purveyor of stringed things, and legendary for the shows hosted in it's intimate back room.  Robyn Hitchcock was a recent guest, on a short tour commemorating the release of 'Eye', one of the more odd tangents in a career given to eccentricities.  The show sold out so quick that a late night set was added, and that sold out as well.

McCabe's celebrated it's 50th anniversary a few years back, and shows no signs of slowing down.  It's the room of choice for some very choosy guitarists, and to no one's surprise, one of the best sounding rooms in L.A.  The strict 'no recording, no photos' policy is magnified by the small capacity, (200 ish?), and totally benefits the listener.
'Eye' doesn't seem to come up much in critical assessments, but was always a favorite of mine.  Done during his A&M tenure, but released on Minneapolis indie Twin Tone, it was less band-centric than the surrounding albums, and the songs were starker and more personal, echoing at different times all his personal touchstones of Dylan, Lennon, Syd Barrett, and John Cale.  It was most certainly not the hit fodder A&M was seeking.

I had the pleasure of catching him in Tucson, AZ a good 20 years ago or so at the Cushing St. Bar, a popular watering hole for local politicians that did live music at night.  He was in fine fettle, intermingling songs with his trademark rambling discourses...The show was held on the back patio of the venue, and my strongest memory is Robyn talking one of the local bikers into revving his hog for percussion during a song.

It's always a crapshoot with backward focusing shows, but this night at McCabe's managed to live up to, and in some ways, surpass the original.  It started, as does the album, with the bitterly luminous 'Cynthia Mask'.  Midway through the first verse, I became aware of a presence on the stairs above the stage, a semi-familiar figure who bobbed in time to the music...Shortly he shuffled onto the stage and sang quiet backing vocals until he was introduced as Grant Lee Phillips.  The shock had not worn off when who would come bounding down the stairs but Mr. David Rawlings, who jumped right into the tune, lending it an additional gravitas with his old Epiphone.  Sure enough, Gillian Welch came down to make the circle complete, and the hung out and played in varying configurations with Robyn for the remainder of the night.

While it was clearly Hitchcock's show, it was fascinating to watch him literally in between Welch and Rawlings, whose years of playing together have gifted them with an amazing telepathy.  Phillips hung out on the piano, and his deadpan sense of humor was the perfect foil and grounding for Hitchcock's verbal flights of fancy.  Rawlings delicate lines and Phillips & Welch's harmonies transformed "Linctus House", a song that, (on the LP), seemed lost in the shadows of "Executioner", but was uplifting here.  "Executioner" was given a ferocious reading, highlighting the Lennon.esque shades of Hitchcock's voice.  The set stuck totally with 'Eye', but not track for track, and not in order.  All the high points were hit, and it was a reminder of how many great tunes were on the album.  "Glass Hotel" was certainly one of the highlights of the night, and the group playing hit it's peak on a raucous 'Clean Steve', after which Robyn remained onstage, reining in everyone's attention with a transcendent take on "Rainy Twilight Coast".  "Satellite" turned out to be the perfect set closer, and the crowd was rewarded with an encore set that ran through the Grateful Dead's "Candy Man", The Band's "The Weight", and the standard "Long Black Veil", before finishing with a Hitchcock tune.  An amazing night in a remarkable venue, what more can be said?
(Ed. Note: An accounting of the evening's first set is available at Chewable Vitamins!)

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