By Dan Gursky
I’ve seen Robyn Hitchcock live twice.
The first time was with the Egyptians, probably in the late 1980s after Globe of Frogs came out. “Balloon Man,” anyone? Ridiculous song, but it hooked me the first time I heard it, and I’ve been a fan ever since.
The second time was just a few weeks ago. Almost 30 years between shows and it’s surprising how similar the shows were in many ways: his witty storytelling, quirky and catchy tunes, fine guitar playing, and plenty of unexpected song choices.
But before the most recent show, it occurred to me that one thing had changed dramatically: Social media and the internet — I think maybe we were only getting into email three decades ago? — have brought interesting and somewhat disconcerting additions to the concert-going experience, especially with an artist who has embraced them as fully as Hitchcock (who is 64, by the way).
A couple of days before his recent shows at a small club in the Northern Virginia suburbs called Jammin’ Java —Jim and Patrick know it well— Hitchcock solicited requests on Facebook and Twitter, but in his own distinct way: “One of the joys of the internet,” he said on Facebook, “aside from the demolition of what remains of our attention span and endless lovely photos of wonderful cats, is that I can ask the audience for requests ahead of the show. I’ve got four great solo gigs coming up this week: what dear listeners, would you like to hear? Please leave your requests and the show you’ll be attending in the comments section. Here is a picture of my beloved cat, Myffy.”
The Twitter ask was obviously shorter, but with an important addition: a promise that during the two Virginia shows, each with two sets, there would be no repeats. That ended up being 48 different songs. I can’t think of too many artists who could pull that off and still have a great set list each night.
I only went to one of the Jammin’ Java shows, but I know from reading about both that he did in fact play a huge number of requests. The funny thing was that this was billed as a record release event for his really excellent new self-titled album, but he never mentioned the album once during his show, and I think he only played one song from it the first night. I wonder how different the shows would have been without the requests?
Of course I had to tweet a request, which I was pleased to hear early in the first set.
Wednesday night. So you think you're in love.
— Dan Gursky (@dangursky1) May 10, 2017
I asked him to play “So You Think You’re in Love,” which I would definitely nominate as a finalist for Jim and Patrick’s Perfect Pop songs. In fact, he joked that it was one of only three happy songs he’s written.
But since this was a solo acoustic show, it was a small letdown just because that song really deserves the full electric treatment. If I had thought about it, I probably would have asked him to play “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” which he did anyway. It’s him at his quirky best.
Playing audience requests is all fine and fun, but here’s where things get interesting. Through the magic of social media, I could not only see what people going to the show wanted him to play, but also what they look like and a little about them from their profiles. And in a small venue like Jammin’ Java, it’s not hard to spot people in the crowd.
So there were requests like this:
“I’m bringing a beautiful girl whom I’m greatly in love with and I played “Beautiful Girl” for her this weekend. I would love to see you play that. She may even think I’m a wonderful guy.” He was probably sweating it out, but Hitchcock did play it near the very end. And since I could see what he looked like on Facebook, it turned out this romantic guy was in the row right behind us.
Later, I saw a response from someone I assume — and hope — is his girlfriend: “Thank you for playing this wonderful guy’s request! I’m a very lucky girl! Wonderful set tonight and such a witty personality as well!” Just a couple of the many entertaining comments and requests.
On Twitter, someone asked for “Uncorrected Personality Traits” in honor of the president. I spotted her a couple rows ahead of us before the show started, but unfortunately, when he did play that apt tune, I think she had left already. Sad, as the president might tweet.
Just for good measure, here’s what Hitchcock tweeted not long before the first show:
Memo to self May 10: 1 Overturn the global alt-right plutocratic techno-cabal 2 Reverse climate change 3 Buy cat food, cheese, apples
— Robyn Hitchcock (@RobynHitchcock) May 10, 2017
I’m not sure whether the social media-live music interaction is great or creepy, or probably a little of both. I would love to hear other readers’ thoughts and experiences.