Scene Alive: Robert Gordon
The 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C., August 14, 2009
This was a homecoming for Robert Gordon. He was brought up in neighboring Bethesda, Maryland, and two of the guitarists with whom he is most associated — Link Wray and Danny Gatton — were based in the area (Danny all his life, until his terrible suicide in 1994, and Link for most of the ’50s and ’60s, until — legend has it — various alimony claims drove him out). The other guitar player most associated with Robert, Brit axe legend Chris Spedding, played on his late ’70s I early ’80s recordings and, after a period spent apart, the pair have been touring together again for the last few years. For this particular tour, they were joined by former Stray Cats drummer Slim Jim Phantom, together with Glen Matlock, the original bass player from The Sex Pistols.
The show — to a crowd of rockers and rockabillies, a few ‘pyschobillies’ (not really sure what they are) and some absolutely enormous bikers — included 18 songs from Robert, plus a couple of songs from each of the other musicians. The sound was hard and driving. Chris kicked things off with a really powerful riff, and on came RG with ‘The Way I Walk’, to which Chris contributed two powerful solos. Robert’s voice sounded, if anything, stronger than ever before. Most of the songs were the classics: ‘C’mon Everybody’ (closely following the original arrangement), ‘Ubangi Stomp’ (“heap big jam session ’bout to begin” — lyrics we don’t often hear these days) and ‘Lonely Weekends’ which started with a very chunky riff that I actually mistook for ‘Bad Moon Rising’.
During a brief chat with Chris before the show I had reminded him that we were in Gene Vincent country (Virginia is just over the river), and I really think that the spirit of Cliff Gallup shone through in his playing — he was on magnificent form, often with two searing solos in each song. Slim Jim stands as he plays, and looks like he’s having a great time. Glen (whose early demos with Rotten Johnny were produced by Chris) seems to have found his natural home.
Robert Gordon has recorded an interesting range of songs over the years, including ‘Have I The Right?’ and ‘A Picture Of You’, and so it wasn’t surprising that some of the songs he performed weren’t that familiar to me. One was a Marshall Crenshaw song, ‘Wasting My Time’, actually very good; another was ‘Beside You’ by Iggy Pop (another name, like the Pistols, that rarely graces these pages!). But things got back on the rockabilly track with ’20 Flight Rock’ and ‘Black Slacks’ — and it’s a real tribute to RG that he can make such an insubstantial song as this into a real performance.
Robert has recorded a lot of Elvis songs over the years, and I was a little surprised that tonight he chose ‘Suspicion’ — not really one of my favorites, and I would have preferred ‘Little Sister’ or ‘A Mess Of Blues’, another two Pomus I Shuman songs he does great versions of. But it did get us a chance to appreciate RG’s voice — in my notes I variously compared it to Big Joe Turner’s and Sonny Burgess’, and on a fun novelty song like ‘Black Slacks’ it even has a Big Bopper-ish quality to it.
One of the big surprises — for me — was to hear Chris break into Ernie Shear’s classic .opening riff, and off they went with ‘Move It’. Who would have thought that one of America’s greatest rockabillies would be singing a Cliff Richard song, backed up by the man who preceded Sid Vicious? Has The Pilchard finally’gained rock n roll respectability? And speaking of Glen, something else I noticed during his performance of ‘No Future (God Save The Queen)’ was how similar it sounded to an Eddie Cochran song. I guess punk really did originate in Albert Lea rather than in New York or London.
For many of us the highlight of the evening was the Burnette Brothers’ classic ‘Rockabilly Boogie’. Chris was on Robert’s original recording of this back in ’79, and tonight he played better than ever with no less than three solos. RG and the band’s performance was right up there, as good as it comes. The Killer described him as “the real deal”, and here was the proof. And with that the show came to an end (almost). Huge cheers and stomping from the audience, and the band came back with a further classic that gave RG another chance to show the range and power of his voice: ‘It’s Only Make Believe’.
This gig was part of a very limited tour — Boston, New York, Philly, Toronto — and for Robert Gordon and the band it was a triumphal return to the D.C., performing at the venue where both Chuck and Jerry Lee have given their greatest performances in recent years. I suggest some enterprising promoter signs them up for a UK tour right away.
Colin Davies has a weekly radio show, which can be heard through his web page: www.theprofessorrocks.com