By Mike Finkelstein
Last weekend, McCabe’s guitar shop delivered a brilliant night of music in a living room vibe as few venues any longer do. Robyn Hitchcock, who has been at it for more that 35 years, headlined two shows, the late show being a double bill opening with Susanna Hoffs trying out material from her upcoming solo release. Ending at nearly1:30 a.m., this turned out to be a 3 hour affair, but it was an absolute treat for those of us who were there.
The format called for Hitchcock to play his solo album Eye in its entirety on acoustic instruments. In its time, Eye was recorded sparsely on guitar, piano, and harmonica and this point of reference gave the songs a recognizable edge as he peeled them off at McCabe’s. It’s a gorgeous collection and the songs shone when stripped down to their essence.
Hitchcock dressed casually and looked more or less ageless, his whitish blond hair cut basically the same as it always has been; and his face, too, didn’t show much in the way of passed time. Also arriving onstage, in a staggered order, were Gillian Welch (guitar and vocals), David Rawlings (guitar, vocals and a master of embellishment), and Grant Lee Phillips (vocals and piano). They have all played and recorded with Hitchcock before, and supported him this time in winsome style.
Hitchcock is wont to launch into eloquent off the wall ramblings and he did so this time, too, introducing his buds according to their horoscopes as John Lennon, George Harrison, Mao Tse Tung, and Peter Sellers. This type of banter went on happily all night.
He launched the set with a mesmerizing “Cynthia Mask” and we were with him all the way.
wore a black hat
ate lots of chicken
and conquered half Europe
was caught by the British
imprisoned on Elba
he died on the phone
came crawling from Munich
with one piece of paper
he waved at the camera
peace in our time
oh thank you Herr Hitler
tell that to the Polish
tell that to the Jews
Moving through selections from Eye, versions of “Queen Elvis,” “Flesh Cartoons,” and the guitar instrumental “Chinese Water Python” stood out brilliantly. All of these songs draw you into an attractive balance of droning beauty and curious sentiments.
For his encore, Hitchcock, to our delighted surprise, dusted off “Candyman” by the Grateful Dead, “Long Black Veil” by Johnny Cash, “The Weight” by the Band and his own “Television.” The sound of his uniquely toned high voice singing the Richard Manuel part in “The Weight” was priceless and mixed with Welch’s and Rawlings’ voices, the sound headed towards sublime. For “The Weight,” Hitchcock, Welch, and Rawlings gave us one of those fine audience moments where we got to watch them humorously work out the arrangement on the fly as they fished for their capos.
Susanna Hoffs’ set began as a struggle between her and the light on a music stand holding the lyrics. She eventually ditched her parlor guitar to concentrate on singing and even danced a little. Her tunes were strong compositions with cascading progressions and 3 guitars all capoed differently for a rich harmonic effect.
She has always been in her element when singing ‘60’s pop songs and her voice is still instantly recognizable from her work with the Bangles. The match of the right cover tune with the right artist can be revealing, as was apparent when Susanna covered “To Sir With Love” by Lulu. Talk about owning a cover! Nice choice, indeed, to give that song a multi-guitar, folky treatment.
All in all this was another fine show at McCabe’s and in these days of change and turmoil for musicians and live music in general, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air to see McCabe’s continue to do right by musicians and fans.
To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein, click HERE.