Being only a number countable on the fingers of one hand away from eligibility for AARP membership (which I plan to decline by setting the application alight on Wisconsin Avenue and Water at high noon on the appropriate birthday), I rarely bother to go out to concerts any more. There are two main factors conspiring to keep me in my comfy couch (or less comfy computer chair): one, having to get up early in the morning after late shows and, two (far more annoying), no longer wishing to inhale the equivalent of several cigarettes just to hear a band. So, when I found out that long-time favorite Robyn Hitchcock was playing Shank Hall, at a non-smoking show with an 8pm start, well that was sufficient.
Rose and I went out for dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant beforehand (I was half-hoping Robyn, missing his native British cuisine of curry, might have spotted the joint and popped in for a nice vegetarian meal before the show), but the place was busier than we’d anticipated, so we got to Shank a little later than I’d hoped. All the old-people chairs and tables were occupied, so we took up residence behind the bar. Actually, that would have been a perfectly fine place to stay – Shank’s sound is excellent, and from where we were we had excellent sightlines – except for a trio of extraordinarily yappy middle-aged (i.e., older than me) gentlemen at the end of the bar, who reminded me of nothing so much as the living embodiment of the characters sketched out in the Costello-penned lyrics to Was (Not Was)’s “Shadow and Jimmy”: two guys who never quite figured out how the rest of the world works and just went on their merrily blabbing and oblivious way. During opening act Sean Nelson’s set – just Nelson and a piano – they were talking so loud they were probably audible clear up at the front of the room, to the extent that one of the bartenders actually told them to be quiet.
So we decided that for Robyn’s show, we’d move elsewhere. We took up a convenient spot along the wall, from which we could see Robyn perfectly except when the occasional straggler returning from one of the restrooms (the wall’s between them) stood in front of us for a few seconds. Plus, there was an oh-so-convenient ledge at perfect height for the resting of beer.
Ah, but here’s where things get tricky. I was unprepared for the perfidy of a certain structural aspect of this ledge which, in the dark, I’d missed – and that is a projecting bit of moulding (which I will henceforth refer to as “Colin”) at the back of this ledge. It seems that if you place a beer glass with its front edge on the ledge itself and the back edge on Colin, the result is a glass which, for a brief instant, rests at a 45 degree angle relative to that ledge. Beer is unstable at this angle – and it therefore splattered all over my jacket, my sweater, and my jeans. (My theory? Peter Jest put Colin there intentionally to drive up beer sales: “damn – better refill that beer I just poured all over the floor.”)
Anyway, my misadventures with beer notwithstanding, it was a very enjoyable evening. Hitchcock started a bit slowly (he later noted that his vocal monitor was off), missing a few notes on the guitar during the opening “Ghost Ship” and forgetting the ending to “City of Shame,” but after that he settled in quite nicely. He was in good voice – which had worried me, since a few years back it seemed as if his voice was on the road to being thoroughly toasted, and he’d have to finish his career with a croak like Dylan’s voice nowadays. He played a nice range of songs from throughout his career, including one new track (from a movie about Brian Epstein, apparently to be called Fifth Beatle) – and his between-song chats seemed spontaneous and were even more hilarious than usual. An extended bit about Tom Hanks as an astronaut spotting a “glyph” in space, and Roger Waters selling crystal meth from an enormous column on the dark side of the moon, reached particular heights of free-associative mania.
After a broken string and an early switch to electric for “Raymond Chandler Evening” and “The Lizard,” Robyn called Sean Nelson back onstage to sing harmonies for the remainder of the show. Highlights of this part of the show included a lovely take on “Alright Yeah” and (after a difficult time retuning his acoustic to open E tuning – during which Robyn improvised a monologue about “courting swans”…which means that I’ll have to have that image in mind every time I tune my own guitar) “Sometimes a Blonde.”
The encore set was particularly nice, featuring Hitchcock and Nelson on an affecting take on “N.Y. Doll,” a heartbreaking cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says,” and, leaving everyone wanting more, a propulsive version of “Adventure Rocket Ship.”
No summary of a Hitchcock show is complete without the Shirt Report. He was wearing purple trousers but, because he kept his dark jacket on all night, it’s a bit hard to describe the shirt. From as much of it as I could see, it was a multicolored number made up of large splashes of bright colors.
We emerged back onto the streets, hoping Milwaukee had been kept safe from marauding Canadian land clams for at least another evening.
Here are two live Hitchcock tracks from my collection: an acoustic version of Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” featuring John Paul Jones (yes, that John Paul Jones) on mandolin, and a piano-based version of “The Lizard” from 1990.
(PS: Amusingly, the first item that comes up in a Google image search on “carpentry moulding” is for something called “Robyn’s Nest, Inc.” I blame Tom Hanks.)