Removed from major label ties, two ace songwriters and performers try their hand at a bit of formalized busking and leave their audience pleased and puzzled: why haven’t they been embraced by a wider public?
Robyn Hitchcock, the Brit eccentric with a marvelous wit and endless pop inspiration who was the subject of a Jonathan Demme documentary, and Grant Lee Phillips, Angeleno and leader of the quietly put to bed Grant Lee Buffalo, take the stage together and rely on Rat Pack giddiness and Beatles-esque tunefulness to get them through 95 minutes of good fun. Collectively, they give each other’s songs depth through vocal and guitar harmony that had been previously limited to recordings. They are just now learning each other’s tunes for a short Pacific Coast tour, yet it hardly shows — this feels like a sturdy marriage with a few years under the belt.
Both artists emerged from the Warners family of labels last year after making several well-received albums, yet neither established significant commercial high marks. They have now brought their recording careers inhouse, Hitchcock releasing tunes that didn’t make his last Warners disc as “A Star for Bram” on his Editions PAF! label; Phillips has made a stunningly hushed album, “Ladies Love Oracle,” and issued it on his Magnetic Field Recordings imprint. Phillips is open to label offers; Hitchcock is undecided.
Phillips used one of his new tunes, “Squint,” to establish the easygoing pace and tone of the evening, holding that timbre steady through such Grant Lee Buffalo classics as “Mockingbirds” and “Honey Don’t Think.” Hitchcock, with a 20-year catalog of nearly 20 albums, followed suit with melting ballads such as “Queen Elvis” and “The Trams of London” that are a distant cry from his recent visits that emphasized newer raucous material such as “The Cheese Alarm” and “Viva Sea-Tac.”
The two, who were backed on occasion on piano by Jon Brion (he scored the film “Magnolia”), proffered a tribute to their antecedents during the encore, starting with the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream” and the Beatles’ “Across the Universe.” Until the end of the evening, wackiness was left to the stream-of-conscience between-song commentary. Then the boys rolled out the David Bowie catalog for hilarious yet exceedingly accurate versions of “Sound and Vision,” “Ashes to Ashes” and “All the Young Dudes.”