Boy, I've been seeing a lot of veterans lately, haven't I? But maybe I'm a veteran at this point too. If celebrating the occasion of Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday at the Fillmore puts me in the oldster category, so be it. I wasn't about to miss this show for anything.
Viva Hitchcock! A 60th Birthday Celebration for Robyn Hitchcock, the Fillmore, May 2, 2013: I confess my expectations of special guests and one-off events at concerts have grown unreasonably. I kind of want them to happen all the time, in no small part due to decade-plus of star-studded (?) spectacles in Southern California. I try to tamp down the anticipation, but it helps when all the cards on the table and the guest list is known, long before the show is scheduled. At that point, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy, as a cavalcade of guests feted Robyn Hitchcock, on the occasion of his 60th birthday (albeit six months on).
Before a single musician played a note, Daniel Handler set the stage with an intro for the show. As it happened, he wouldn't be the only writer we'd see tonight; Neil Gaiman briefly joined him at the mic to introduce Amanda Palmer's portion of the show. Also, I could swear I saw Michael Chabon up in guest box, but then again, there were a lot of bespectacled, bookish-looking, middle-aged men all over the premises, so I could be wrong.
But back to Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket -- I believe he was the one who noted that most of the artists we'd see tonight were from the Pacific Northwest. By no coincidence, Colin Meloy was the main mover behind the scenes, so of course there'd be a regional bias. Lucky for us, that part of the world is pretty good for, well, almost everything these days. I'm just thankful they decided to do it at the Fillmore instead of another part of the world. Then again, why would you want to do this anywhere else, given the choice?
Among the first musicians to plug in were John Moen (Decemberists), Dave Depper, Andy Cabic (Vetiver) -- and Peter Buck (er, REM, though I think Daniel Handler reminded us that he's currently unemployed). As you might guess, Peter Buck got a lot of attention, but his contributions and presence were fairly subtle, if you can call gorgeous, rippling chords from those big, beautiful Gibsons and Rickenbackers "subtle." Overall, he stayed in the background, even as the crowd cheered on his every appearance.
Peter, Dave, and John would act as the house band for much of the night, backing each new ensemble for their portion of the show and their selections from Robyn's catalog -- in most cases, going into deep album cuts. Sean Nelson (ex-Harvey Danger) had joined this first assemblage, but he returned with his wife for the second segment of his show. Sean got in one of the better lines of the night, as he called out our likely common affliction: Anglophilia. Nailed it!
Eric Johnson of the Fruit Bats was the first musician of the evening that I count among my favorites, and it was probably my familiarity with his music that it hit me: These artists were really personalizing Robyn's tunes.
This also brings up a confession: I'm not particularly up on Robyn's songs, despite having seen him in concert at least a couple of dozen times by now and even being a cognizant music fan when he hit the scene. Back then, his tunes weren't particularly pop-friendly to my teenage ears. I'm gonna say it -- he was probably a little too weird and not as photogenic as I preferred. Also, as I later discovered, he had that whole Dylan thing going on, which I still haven't really warmed to, truth be told. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen Robyn as a strictly solo act; more often than not, I've caught him as part of a Largo conclave, where it seems like everything but an artist's original tracks are on the menu.
Over to Eric: He covered "Trams of Old London," which I actually recognized! But just as identifiable was the jangly, acoustic spin he put on the tune. His typically rich vocals didn't hurt either. It's worth repeating: He has one of my favorite voices among musicians today. In Eric's hands, the songs sounded like Fruit Bats tunes.
The Young Fresh Fellows were on next, turning the volume all the way up to 11 and kicking up the tempo. You have to wonder if it's ever smart to name your act "Young," because these guys were not. Then again, what 20-something thinks they'll ever get old? Or that their band will persist long enough for the name to matter. And that aforementioned point about the Fruit Bats putting their stamp on Robyn's titles? It went double for the Young Fresh Fellows.
I'm a little more familiar with Rhett Miller's association with Robyn Hitchcock, so it came as little surprise that he'd share his fandom so giddily or that he'd go with "Cynthia Mask," which the Old 97s recorded a while back. But who knew he'd get "Balloon Man," perhaps Robyn's only certified U.S. (alternative?) radio hit? And yup, you guessed it -- Rhett put a little bit of Texas in the quintessentially British works.
This was the point when Neil Gaiman joined the performers, though he didn't say a word as Daniel Handler directed our attention to one of the upstairs boxes. A barbershop quintet, known as the Hitchcockblockers, had assembled for an a cappella rendition of "Uncorrected Personality Traits."
One of the Hitchcockblockers, Amanda Palmer, came downstairs for the next segment, accompanied by the birthday boy himself. In fact, this was the first time we'd seen him all night, but thankfully, it wouldn't be the last. I'm not entirely up on the Amanda Palmer saga, but I guess her fellow musicians haven't shut her out. Free speech? Solidarity? Your guess is as good as mine (that is: not good at all).
The instigator Colin Meloy came up next, after an awesome intro by Daniel Handler that I wish I could repeat verbatim because it was so good. All I can recall is that he mentioned Irish folk songs and Civil War reenactments. Like the rest of the crew, Colin took his allotted portion of three songs -- but dammit, if the titles alone couldn't have been ripped out of a Decemberists setlist. Colin sounded like Colin, but he may have shared the most direct connection to Robyn, with their taste in subject matter, wordplay, and folksiness. In case you had been wondering why Colin of all people had assembled this show, he put those question to rest with his performance.
I've skimmed over Daniel Handler's input because it's impossible to repeat his words without mangling them in my own illiteracy. But he created another highlight when he donned an accordion and sang "Gene Hackman" for us. Do I agree with the song's sentiment? No, but I highly approve of Mr. Lemony Snicket putting a sorrowful, Old World slant on it.
Finally, it was time for Robyn himself, partly solo, partly with the Venus 3, and partly in a mob, but first he shared the stage with Sean Nelson for a couple of tunes, including the always charming "I Feel Beautiful," even if I missed you-know-who's marxophone solo. According to Robyn, the Venus 3 was more like the Venus 4.5, but he may have been the only one counting. I'm way into this phase of Robyn's career and was happy to hear the tunes from the last couple of records. They brought back Colin for "Madonna of the Wasps," though he looked a little unsure of his role. I, for one, was happy to see him there.
The encore turned out to be a big party, as everyone returned for an a cappella "Furry Green Atom Bowl" and the musician's urging us to join in with handclaps. Many of the musicians themselves were working from lyrics sheets; I guess you can't really rehearse that kind of thing. The penultimate song, "Listen to the Higsons," moved Peter Buck and Colin Meloy to the drum sets, which is the kind of musical chairs I love.
The audience coaxed Robyn out for a final song, but it only worked once. Though we were still buzzing for more from the all-stars, Daniel Handler capped the evening as he began, with the final send-off. We managed to squeeze in one final round of "Happy Birthday" for the man himself. It was the least we could do.
» i'm happy, hope you're happy too
» she couldn't dance but she wanted to
» my starter won't start
» it took almost seven hours to sing
» i've written pages upon pages
» time is round and space is curved