Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Case of the Striped Shirts or How I Ended Up Riding in a Car with Robyn

On Monday March 28, 2005, I was to open up a Robyn Hitchcock concert at The Iron Horse in Northampton. I've been a fan of Hitchcock for many years and I feel like he's been a big influence on my song writing, so this was a pretty cool gig for me.

The day was rainy, though, and fraught with strangeness. Maybe it was the anxious swells of adrenaline that were filling my gut or maybe it was the sad news of a friend's parental loss that began my day. Whatever it was, the whole day felt it like I was traveling. I had jet-lag without leaving town.

I got to the Iron Horse at about 4:00 after struggling to put my equipment into my tiny car with doors that don't open. I loaded in during a downpour and found my favorite sound engineer, Jim, setting up the stage. There was no sign of Robyn yet and we decided I should go ahead and sound check. I had brought both my acoustic guitars. My Martin had a brand new pick-up in it and with Jim's help we did a nice comparison of that and my normal instrument - the red Guild. We decided neither sounded much better than the other so I stuck with good-old red since I was much more
familiar with playing it.

Sound check at the Iron Horse is always a pleasant experience because you are reminded just how nice it is going to sound while you perform. I also played a little piano (actually, the piano was quite large, I just played it for a small amount of time) while Jim set those levels. I wouldn't be using the piano during my set, although it would have been fun, since I wasn't prepared for such an opportunity.

We also set up my Telecaster, which I was lending to Robyn Hitchcock.

A few minutes later, as I was sorting out my cds and t-shirts with Leslie at the door, I heard a very familiar low and thick voice behind me say, "Pardon me, do you know where Jim is?".

You know, when you have listened to an artist enough time, sometimes, you feel like you sort of know them. Hearing this voice behind me was like hearing the voice of an old friend. It was like meeting a pen-pal (granted, this pen-pal has never received any letters from me) for the first time.

So, there was Robyn Hitchcock, a guy who previously had existed only in recordings and a few photographs and in army drab in the Manchurian Candidate. After his sound check, he was to head over to Bishop's Lounge (a small club only a few blocks away) where an invitation only radio-broadcasted short concert was being held. Since he had no idea where that was, I was asked to walk him over. Which was fine by me, I was going to go there anyway.

Jim introduced us and Hitchcock said, "Nice shirt. Mine's got stripes,too."

While we were just about to leave, we were informed that a car was being sent over to pick us up, so we didn't have to walk in the rain. Moments later, Kelsey Flynn, Deejay at WRSI picked us up and we headed for Bishop's Lounge. On the way, we were held up by some slow drivers and I asked Kelsey why she didn't have special sirens on her roof to alert people that we were in an important radio car. "Radio Sirens," said Hitchcock (look for it on his next album).

We got to Bishop's Lounge and found an audience of about 12 people. That was less than half of what was expected. I had invited Jose Ayerve to accompany me to this private performance and he and I sat at the bar and watched as the frantic radio staff struggled with two ailing mobile transmitters. While they trouble-shot, Hitchcock entertained the starry-eyed audience with a nice intimate version of "I Feel Beautiful".

He attributed it to the work of demons, when it was finally determined that the transmitters were not going to work, and then was gracious enough to agree to move on back to the studio to do the broadcast. The whole group of people walked to WRSI's studio which was but a Rolling Stones album throw away.

At this point, I opted out of squeezing into the teeny room and instead killed some time before the show by visiting various friends at different shops around town.

I got back to the Iron Horse at about 6:00 to find that the room was filling up. Excellent.

I spent some time by whiling it away with my super-hero-phone's solitaire game, trying to relax. Soon, I was surrounded by friends who came out to see the show and before I knew it, Jim told me that I had five minutes.

Neil introduced me over the loudspeakers and I took the stage to a very nice warm clapping sound coming from the audience.

Playing on that stage is wonderful in all regards except that it is very difficult (almost entirely impossible) to see anybody in the crowd. A few faces are lit up by the soundboard (Lesa's was one) and you can see a few folks at the bar and you can just barely make out the shapes of the faces at the tables right up at the edge of the stage. Directly in front of me in that blurry dark haze were Debbie, Rick, Sarah, and our very own Brian.

I played through my set calmly and with barely a single error. My jokes came out fluidly and unplanned, I think I said something about a bootleg of the sound of a chip being bitten into. I'm really not quite sure. What I definitely remember is the sound of people all through the room singing along to Photobooth Curtain. Brilliant!

When I took to the stage I had neglected to check the time so I just winged it, when it seemed like about half an hour had gone by, I said I was going to play two more songs. I asked Brian if I should play "Something's Taking Over" or "Back To School" and he mouthed back, "Back to School". Someday, I 'll get through a show without relying on that drummer for something.

I ended on Omnivore and wished I could have played longer. I was feeling completely in control. During the quiet third verse, the room was silent. I was being spoiled.

When I got off the stage, a bunch of nice folks came up to me with compliments and questions. I signed a couple discs and shook a couple hands and made a couple friends and slinked back into the crowd feeling like I was glowing-in-the-dark.

Robyn took the stage after a twenty minute break and went on to play a brilliant hour and half set. The show was almost entirely comprised of requests. People passed up notes to the stage and after each song he picked them up and shuffled through them commenting off-handedly on each. He switched back and forth from acoustic guitar to piano to electric guitar and back again. At one point he walked right off the stage with the acoustic and played a medley of 70's hits out in the crowd, walking half way up the stairs to the second level and back to the bar to ask for a glass of red wine.

He was in good form, his voice as strong and wide-ranging as ever and several of the ladies told me he was very sexy. Highlights for me included "1974", "Swirling", "My Wife and My Dead Wife", Syd Barrett's "Chapter 24" (done beautifully on the piano), "Ted Woody and Junior", "Ole Tarantula", and "Flavour of Night". But mostly "1974". For some reason that song sounded better than ever.

After the show I hung out in a little group of friends by the bar as well wishers shook my hand and Hitchcock fans waited in a long line to meet and greet with the man-of-the-hour. It took over half an hour for all the people to make their way through the rock-star receiving line and when the place was mostly filled out, a group of us headed over to The Basement, with Robyn promising that he would follow as soon as he finished up at the Iron Horse. Seems the evening wasn't over quite yet.

It was open mic night at The Basement, which means it was hot and crowded and uncomfortable, but friendly and welcoming. I squeezed my way into a seat at the back table and found myself sitting with three bonafide successful musicians that I admired, Chris Collingwood, Lloyd Cole, and now Robyn Hitchcock. Very strange. Lloyd signed Robyn up on the open mic list and I passively planted the seeds of us all doing some songs together, especially with Brian playing the drums, which were all set up and everything. When it eventually came around to Robyn's slot on the list, the drinks had started to settle in. He did a song and then called us up. Brian took to the drums while Chris and I sang harmonies from behind the second microphone. Lloyd, perhaps wisely, opted to sit out. We goofed our way through "Waterloo Sunset", "Something", "Peggy Sue", and "Happiness is a Warm Gun". Brian played beautifully following Robyn's strange lead while Chris and I yelped on in the background like injured crows. I felt a bit embarrassed but at the same time had a few moments of delight while singing harmony along with Robyn in real life not just in the car with the stereo on.

When we left the stage, Robyn told host Matt Hebert, "Thank you. That was very drunk".

I stayed for a few minutes more and said my goodbyes slipping a copy of "The New You" to Robyn who took it politely as he thanked ME for singing along with HIM. Nice guy.

Thank you everyone who came out to this show, I hope you enjoyed it even a tenth as much as I did. I know I enjoyed it at least ten times more than that.

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