I shouldn't be so surprised that I've seen Robyn Hitchcock (in one form or another) as often as I have. It's really a function of the longevity of his career, his wonderful taste in collaborators and cohorts, and my venue snobbery that keeps me coming back. But I have to admit that Robyn is an acquired taste I've yet to fully embrace. Regardless, odds are I'll keep trying for a while to come, especially when he's accompanied by any of his stable of musically inclined friends.
Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, Slim's, April 10, 2007: Last year, a very similar configuration of this "if there were any justice in the world, they would be a supergroup" group came to Slim's and put on a fun, goofy show. That much, I could've predicted. What surprised me, however, was the extent to which I loved the album, Olé! Tarantula, that some of these same players put out later in 2006.
And therein lies the difference. I don't think I was alone in wondering why the band chose to call themselves the Venus 3 on this outing--you don't have to squint too hard to see that the Venus 3 looks suspiciously similar to the Minus 5 sans one or two members. But that shouldn't even be an issue, considering the revolving-door membership policy at the very foundation of the Minus 5's existence.
About halfway through the show, however, I realized that, indeed, this was a different band backing Robyn. In fact, "backing" might not even be the right word. Granted, it was clear who played the role of front man, and any Robyn Hitchcock tour means that his songs--from any point in his career--will take center stage.
But this time out, it sounded to me that the band (Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck, Bill Rieflin) were more than overgrown fanboys supporting one of their idols and even more than buddies out for a good time. Though the friendships and collaborations between them stretches back for many years now, Olé! Tarantula is actually their first official release in which they share writing credits. This heightened participation really came through in the show--most notably on Robyn's older material, which they pumped up to refreshingly poptastic levels. In essence, they sort of Venus-3-ified Robyn's back catalog. And maybe I'm biased, as someone who's mostly seen Robyn going solo acoustic over the years, but it turned out to be one of the best times I've had seeing the man.
"City of Shame" was so great that they did it twice. Well, they claimed that they were too slow on the first run-through, but I loved seeing Robyn and Peter standing shoulder to shoulder for the roaring double-guitar intro on both takes. And speaking of guitars, it was lovely to hear Peter favoring the 12-string Epiphone as much as he did, but I was surprised by Robyn's distinctive chops on the electric guitar and the accompanying effects pedal.
In other band news, I found it hard to believe that Bill Rieflin had played with Ministry all those years ago 'cos he sure knows his way around a pop backbeat. Scott McCaughey (in addition to his bass guitar duties) and Sean Nelson, meanwhile, lended their sweet harmonies to the mix. My favorites in the vocals department: "Brenda's Iron Sledge" and "Jewels for Sophia." But my absolute highlight of the night was easily "Queen Elvis," just because.
Amid this harmonic convergence, Robyn interspersed his typically convoluted yet effortless yarns. Tonight, he held court on matters regarding the cosmic relation between ourselves and our pets, fielding late-night calls from Karl Rove while watching Clint Eastwood movies, and crossing the river Charon for the price of 55 cents (U.S.) plus 11 cents (Canadian), among other topics.
If pushed, I might lodge two complaints about the show. First, the band seemed oddly professional tonight (multiple takes, notwithstanding). As recently as last year, we got a hell of a send-off, wherein each band member took up an instrument they don't usually man (Peter Buck on the drums, dammit!). Tonight, even Scott McCaughey stayed in line. Then again, this wasn't, strictly speaking, a Minus 5 gig, so maybe the same mischief doesn't apply.
Second, the band didn't do very many songs off the new album, but then again, I realize Robyn has quite the war chest of titles. Maybe another 10 years from now (by which point, I'll probably have seen the band another dozen times), with a slightly different band lineup, they'll devote whole shows to Olé! Tarantula. I'll just have to stick around and find out for myself.
Opening tonight was Sean Nelson and His Mortal Enemies. I didn't realize it was the singer of Harvey Danger, which many of you may recall from their '90s-era hit "Flagpole Sitta." I should know better than to hold a musician's chart-topping singles against them, but I hated that song when it was all over the radio. Regardless, Sean was pretty funny, especially on a song about forming a supergroup, wherein he namechecked Velvet Revolver and the Power Station (!).
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