Robyn Hitchcock's first words upon stepping on stage at T.T. the Bear's on Friday were "You never know when reality will strike." The comment was more prophetic than he realized, as the typical Hitchcockian carnival of stream-of-consciousness surreality was brought down to earth by his dissatisfaction with the sound mix.
Beyond a booming that showed up whenever he sang at the lower end of his range, the problems were barely noticeable to the sold-out audience. Still, frustration made the former Soft Boy, one of the last of the old guard of professional nutters still freaking the normals, seem somewhat subdued. He caught fire in fits and starts instead of building incrementally.
Hitchcock opened with the solo acoustic "Ghost Ship," with the singer slowly rising and falling, rather than swaying, with the insistent 6/8 pulse. The Venus 3 joined him one at a time over the next three songs -- Young Fresh Fellows/Minus Five mastermind Scott McCaughey served as the genial foil on bass and backing vocals while R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, less than three weeks after his Rock Hall of Fame induction, mostly hung out in the shadows.
Countryish numbers like "Olé! Tarantula" and "In the Afterlife" were as sloppily relaxed as a pickup rehearsal, but the band sharpened as the songs got increasingly electric. "Sally Was a Legend," "Madonna of the Wasps," and "(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs" galvanized the guitar jangle that Hitchcock and Buck helped establish as a key ingredient in 1980s college rock.
It reached its apex in a cover of "Ballad of a Thin Man," where the sinister, piercing treble of psychedelia served Bob Dylan's descending chords well, as drummer Bill Rieflin added a level of explosively nervous mania behind the kit and the song took on a hypnotic heft by the end. A crashing version of Pink Floyd's "See Emily Play" soon followed, and by then the difficulties of the mix, and of reality, were forgotten.
Opener Johanna Kunin faced sound problems of her own, with her clear, light voice painting songs so delicate and fundamentally quiet that they were colored by the bass rumble of the Middle East downstairs cutting through the floor.