Jonathan and I rode into Lower Manhattan around 6:15, my timing a little too accurate as usual. We parked on Spring Street and made our way half a block to City Winery and began camping out at our six-person table in the center of the venue. My estimation of the view from our seats was spot-on; we were positioned cleanly in front of center stage, but not so close that we would have to crane our necks. We chatted with another fan at our table over food, whom I’d complimented on her Nick Lowe’s Labour of Lust t-shirt. Lowe’s “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” and “Nutted by Reality” came on over the PA. She told us about a show in which Robyn and Elvis Costello appeared on stage to sing with Lowe. I remarked that it’d be cool if Pete Buck walked up on stage on this night.
Robyn barreled onto the stage and began playing “My Wife and My Dead Wife” with no introduction, then immediately broke into “Balloon Man.” Get them out of the way—smart. He looked ever so slightly disgusted with himself as he adjusted one of his cuffs, then explained that Balloon Man and the President are not dissimilar. Admittedly, if there’s one place where he might feel obligated to play “Balloon Man,” it’s Manhattan.
His vaunted between-song banter did not fail to entertain throughout the night. He introduced “Trilobite” which a long bit on how millions of years in the future a race of advanced cheetahs may discover the ruins of our civilization and mistakenly come to the conclusion that hi-fi equipment was the dominant species of our time. He played “(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs” during the second set and talked about his morbid fascination with the movie Magnum Force, which Jonathan had to later explain to me in the car.
As always, Robyn paid homage to his influences. He broke out Syd Barrett’s relatively obscure “Wined and Dined” near the beginning of the first set. He remarked after that many singers of the ’60s developed techniques that allowed them to pierce through bad PA systems and that this was no longer necessary because even our phone recordings sound better than state-of-the-art equipment from back then. He then asked the “disembodied voice of the evening” to give him a particular sort of delay on his guitar, steeled himself, and proceeded to blast his own anachronistic screech through the Winery’s state-of-the-art PA. “Best thing in the world: the Beatles, and the most important singer in the Beatles: John Lennon,” he lectured politely, before playing a note-perfect “Dear Prudence.”
Hitchcock’s guitar-playing, which I’ve always found to be an underrated aspect of him, was in full force (magnum force, even). While not a transcendent guitarist, I prefer him to his contemporaries because he has more character. When he fumbled the intro to “Glass Hotel,” stepping back from the microphone to utter a furious “Damn it!” I only thought this added to the charm. The piano, which loomed large during the first set, was first utilized by special guest Mike Mills (hey, I was close) for “I Wanna Destroy You” to open the second set. Robyn quipped, “And now for the only thing scarier than Mike Mills on the piano, which is me on the piano,” and played “Harry’s Song,” “Somewhere Apart,” and “Executioner.” Emma Swift then came on to support him for “Briggs,” “I Used to Say I Love You,” and “Glass Hotel.” He then wrapped up the set with a few fan favorites and stepped off stage for a brief moment before playing “Sound and Vision” for the encore. Weird! But cool.
As the crowd funneled out the door, Robyn made his way to the merch table to sign memorabilia and take selfies. Jonathan said we should go up to him. I declined, the usual things running through my head. What can I say to this guy that he hasn’t heard thousands of times already? What if he’s aloof? Eventually he convinced me, insisting he’d buy me something from the table; I acquiesced. As it turns out, Robyn is very pleasant. We shook his hand and Jonathan introduced us. “My wedding DJ refused to play ‘Kingdom of Love,'” I said with a smile. “On what grounds?” he asked with feigned indignance. He asked politely how long I’d been married and offered kind words, and we left.
And that was our evening with Robyn Hitchcock.