Gowanus Canal Sunset: Robyn Hitchcock at the Bell House
On Thursday night I saw Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 – R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Bill Rieflin and Scott McCaughey – at the Bell House in Brooklyn. Ken Stringfellow of the Posies opened in a solo capacity; he was preceded by Takka Takka.
Despite owning at least eight of his albums, and enjoying them always, I’m not the world’s biggest Robyn Hitchcock expert. But I was surrounded by people who were, and they rated it one of his better shows. Certainly, the location helped. The Bell House, for those who don’t know, is owned by the same people behind the Union Hall in my old Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. That venue puts on live music in a tiny room in the basement (the upstairs bar introduced the bocce braze to Brooklyn, for better or worse); the Bell House, by comparison, is a vast warehouse capable of holding several hundred people, with a separate bar area equally large. There’s an obvious reason for this difference in size: The Bell House is located within a spitball’s distance of the Gowanus Canal, until recently a toxic cess pit (it’s infamously rumored to have long contained more guns than water) surrounded by vacant warehouses, dilapidated industrial estates, a 24-hour Home Depot and the constant noise from the overhead Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. In other words, exactly the kind of badly-lit, shadowy street scene you’d never normally walk at night (and rarely so at day, either)…
But in the uber-safe 21st Century New York City, it’s only ever been a matter of time before the Gowanus became gentrified, and though it didn’t happen while I was living a couple of Avenues away, with Carroll Gardens to the west and Park Slope to the east each advancing slowly but surely, it’s certainly taking place now. One day, and it will be soon, we will be supping cappuccinos and vino complementing the waterway just as we do in Camden or Manchester.
Almost everything about the Bell House is spot on. Friendly staff, great sight lines, superb sound system, free water pitchers on the bar and properly-priced beer: $5 for a pint of Smuttynose IPA. I could complain about the bus-boy who relieved my half-full drink while my back was turned, and I was a bit ticked off at the time, but at least it was in the name of keeping the place clean: I’ve been in far too many bars and venues where piled-up drinks become a danger as much as a nuisance.
It was a night to socialize rather than analyze. Certainly, Robyn was in fine fettle, stretching out his introductions into ever more fantastic – and continually hilarious – stories, as is his well-known wont. The set delved deep into the past. It opened with the superlative Hitler-Chamberlain referencing acoustic “Cynthia Mask” from 1990’s Eye, concluded with “Airscape” from 1986’s Element of Light (much to the delight of my Hitchcock-loving friend, who had “requested” it), and during the 90-odd minutes in-between, we also heard “Brenda’s Iron Sledge,” “Acid Bird” and “City Of Shame,” all from his first solo album Black Snake Diamond Role, the ever-excellent “Vibrating” and “Flesh Number 1 (Beatle Dennis)” from 1988’s comparatively well-known Globe Of Frogs, and presumably several cuts from the new album Goodnight Oslo, my lack of knowledge for which I suddenly feel painfully embarrassed.
Buck, Rieflin and McCaughey were everything anybody would want from a backing group – and we were all in love with both Hitchcock’s beautiful blue guitar (not the Fender Stratocaster of same color stolen in Canada in ’07), and McCaughey’s similarly unusual bass. I was primarily relieved to be in front of a band and part of an audience that was mostly older than me – especially after precisely the opposite experience seeing Deastro at the Mercury Lounge 24 hours earlier. And I loved what I believe must have been a pair of brothers – perhaps even twins – who were stood just in front of us, big tall chaps with glasses and beards, probably 50 years old each, who epitomized the Hi Fidelity music geek and who glared at our group every time we dared discuss the set while Hitchcock was engaged in one of his shaggy-dog introductions.
Cover versions should never be the highlight of a set, but they are always one of the most enjoyable – or at least informative – aspects of it. Hitchcock and co. are among the few musicians capable of taking on The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” and doing it justice. You can see film of it above. Thanks to Robyn and friends for such an entertaining ninety minutes; to Ken Stringfellow to making it on stage direct from a flight from Paris (where he took his daughter to school that same morning) and to the forces behind the Bell House for raising the standard of New York City venues…. Oh, and additional kudos to Hitchcock and Buck, both of whom hung out at the merch stand afterwards, like the aspiring musicians they no longer need lay claim to be. The new paradigm certainly has its benefits.