Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band, Duke of York's, Brighton
Friday 01 October 2010
Getting bums on seats isn't the challenge when you're a hugely successful, silver-haired Hollywood actor living out your teenage dreams. It's keeping them there that's the problem. Plenty of Hollywood actors have trodden the rock'n'roll path before – Billy Bob Thornton, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner and, yes, William Shatner – and Tim Robbins, determinedly dressed down in jeans and a crumpled shirt, is keenly aware of the boulders that threaten to trip him up.
Robbins, Oscar-winning star of The Shawshank Redemption, Mystic River and The Player, has form when it comes to music. His father, Gilbert, was a musician, a member of successful early-Sixties folk group The Highwaymen, while Robbins Jr's teens were spent playing guitar and writing songs with the aim of turning it into a full-time job. In the end, it wasn't to be and, all these years later, the reasons are clear enough.
Americana is Robbins's genre of choice, taking in hillbilly country, gentle Appalachian folk and Southern blues while his most obvious idols are Steve Earle, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Among the most pressing problems is his voice, which is at best workmanlike and certainly lacks the richness and character to carry off such hallowed classics as Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and Billie Holiday's "What a Little Moonlight Can Do". "Mary Don't You Weep", a Negro spiritual about Mary of Bethany's pleas to Jesus to raise her brother Lazarus from the dead, would seem a ghastly choice of song for a rich, middle-aged white man and Robbins only gets through it by turning it into a mass sing-a-long. He makes a marginally better fist of Warren Zevon's "Don't Let Us Get Sick" though the saccharine instrumentation lets him down. His most successful cover is of Tom Waits's "All the World Is Green", if only by showing that his voice works best when it's not required to do much.
While certainly adept, his band The Rogues Gallery are far from the rapscallions that their name would suggest with their stiff postures and self-conscious smirks. Crammed on to a tiny stage they have brought along everything including the kitchen sink and it's up to this panoply of instruments – oboes, accordions, mandolins, saws, harmonicas – to bring the songs some much-needed texture.
If Robbins's choice of covers seems ill-judged they still manage to make his self-penned numbers appear flimsy by comparison. The opener, "Queen of Dreams", with its Irish folk-rock setting, plants the notion that we're watching a pub band that proves hard to shake for the rest of the night, while "Got a Crush on You", a sappy paean to forbidden love, simply curls the toes.
Ultimately, it's the warmth and humility of our host that keeps tonight's performance from being an outright disaster and, despite his musical limitations, he seems to be having a ball. It doesn't stop a handful of punters from heading home before the end, however, the sparkle of celebrity having clearly turned dull.
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