Neko, Robyn & Maria
So the Neko Case show I reviewed for the ND homepage yesterday turned out to be the first of three straight nights out to see music last week – which at one time would’ve been no big deal for me, but I don’t tend to do stretches like that very often anymore (outside of SXSW or some such festival-type event). It was pretty hard, though, to pass up a tripleheader of Neko at Meymandi Hall in Raleigh on Tuesday, Robyn Hitchcock at Cats Cradle in Carrboro on Wednesday, and Maria Taylor at Local 506 in Chapel Hill on Thursday.
Degrees-of-separation-wise, it was pretty easy to connect the dots from show to show. Tuesday night, Case and her harmony singer Kelly Hogan hummed a few bars and spun a few jokes about “Walking On Sunshine”, the oft-covered pop hit penned by Kimberley Rew, who many moons ago was in the Soft Boys with, yes, Robyn Hitchcock. And on Wednesday, Hitchcock’s illustrious backing band the Venus 3 featured guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Reiflin – in other words, 60% of the present touring lineup of R.E.M. … whose singer, Michael Stipe, makes a guest-appearance on the final track of the new album by, as fate would have it, Maria Taylor.
Now that we’ve got that all tied up into one tidy little package, on to the Hitchcock show. It’s frankly just flat unfair for anyone to be able to tour the club circuit with this pedigree of a backing band, but I’m guessing Robyn’s all right with that inequality. Of course it’s nothing really new, as his mates also frequently hit the road with the Minus 5 (ring-led by McCaughey), and sometimes as part of Tuatara (fronted by Barrett Martin), and probably still on occasion just hop onstage with some band or another on a rainy night in the Pacific Northwest when they’re not on the road. Indeed, it’s likely the roots of the Venus 3 extend back to just such an occasion a decade or so ago, when Hitchcock made frequent surprise appearances at a small Seattle burger-joint/tavern called the Two Bells.
Buck himself goes back with Hitchcock much further, of course, having guested on Robyn’s records in the 1980s (Hitchcock also opened some arena tours for R.E.M. back in the day). All of which makes these Venus 3 shows something pretty special – the musicians not only are having a fine time together onstage, they’re also really locked in with each other artistically thanks to all that history. And they stretched back pretty far with some of the set, to be sure. While there was a fair bit of focus on their excellent new disc Goodnight Oslo – everything from the grand self-identity anthem “What You Is” to the mesmerizing pop tune “I’m Falling” to the epic album-closing title track – they also revisited Egyptians-era classics such as “Madonna Of The Wasps”, and even dug all the way back to the Soft Boys for a particularly obscure track that I believe Hitchcock claimed had been performed live only once before.
All that said, though, the moment to behold, for me, was their surprisingly stirring version of “Television” from 2004’s Spooked, the album Hitchcock recorded with Gillian Welch & David Rawlings. This required Rieflin to move from the drums to the stage-left mike so he could join McCaughey in providing harmony vocals; god forbid they let Peter Buck handle the singing part of either David or Gillian! But Buck’s instrumental support on the tune was, as always, right on-target, and the result was real and radiant magic, reverberating among the faded black walls of the Cat’s Cradle. “Bing-a-bong-a-bing, bong, bing, bong….”
Audio addendum: Just found this embed which apparently is an audio document of the entire Cat’s Cradle show:A quick video bonus: This is from four days before the Cat’s Cradle show, at the Granada Theater in Dallas, and the sound quality is only so-so, but this guy really got the camerawork right-on, I thought. He does sorta annoyingly pan over to inconsequential focal-points briefly about midway through, but fortunately he manages to bring things back to proper front-and-center by the end of the shot. Nicely done, sir!
OK, then, if it’s Thursday, this must be Maria. Texas songwriter Butch Hancock once sang, in his epic “Split & Slide II” tale of misadventure, “Into the middle of this insane scenario / Came the real Maria and the real Mario.” (Click here for the audio-snippet.) And here they were at the Local 506 – Maria onstage, ready to showcase songs from her new album LadyLuck, and Mario, an irrepressibly overzealous fan parked at the edge of the stage, enthusiastic but poised to be a disruptive force.
Taylor handled it with effortless good nature: She gave him a wide berth, but also high-fived him after songs a couple of times, showing her appreciation for his expressiveness. That act of kindness helped her rise above what otherwise might have been a rocky night, with a misbehaving guitar causing problems early in the set. It also helped that her four-piece backing band was steady throughout, staying minimal on quieter songs but lending muscle to numbers that required a more forceful push.
The lone downside, for me at least, was the absence from her set of the real standout from the new album. Taylor has made videos for two of the disc’s best tracks – “Time Lapse Lifeline” and “Cartoons And Forever Plans” (the latter tune featuring a vocal cameo by Michael Stipe) – and, not surprisingly, she did play both of those songs on this night; but there’s a song on LadyLuck that goes deeper, hits harder. It’s called “100,000 Times” and it’s the best synthesis she’s yet realized of that elusive meeting-ground between indie, acoustic, and electronica elements where the heart of her music resides. Have a little bit of a listen, and see what you think.