LIKE a good wine, Tom Robinson has aged extremely well. Once very much anti-establishment, he is now firmly middle class, but none the worse for it. He has lost none of his charisma or good looks and he is still capable of wooing an audience as evidenced by his three day stint at Pizza Express Live Holborn in London.
Having spent last year touring on the back of the 40th anniversary of breakthrough album Power In The Darkness, 68 year old Robinson has returned with a new set.
This time it is more reflective, more encompassing of his music and contemplative – and more pared back. Unlike last year’s raucous shows, there is no Adam Phillips to mesmerise on bass guitar.
Instead, Robinson relies as much on his wit and storytelling as he does on his rich back catalogue of music. This is a show about Robinson’s life story.
His troubled youth, stemming from falling in love with someone of the same sex (at a time – the 1960s – when it was illegal to be homosexual). Nervous breakdowns followed as did spells in homes for troubled children.
His success in the late 1970s (driven by Power In The Darkness), followed by his subsequent near financial ruin and then finding love again (this time with a woman). Given Robinson is a born raconteur and not frightened to be self-deprecating, the glue is as good as the music it binds. Robinson could charm the parakeets out of the trees in London’s Hyde Park.
Of course, most concert goers are primarily interested in Robinson’s hits – which explains the success of last year’s Power In The Darkness tour. Robinson does not disappoint this time around either, but he likes to do things his own way.
So 2-4-6-8, his opening number, is sung with just his acoustic guitar as accompaniment. It is the same format with Up Against The Wall, another 1970s anthem. Martin is delivered as a poignant poem which Robinson recites with aplomb.
‘You can get a bit hard when you’ve been inside
But I hugged the old bastard and I almost cried
Cos no-one ever had a brother like Martin
No-one ever had a brother like him.’
With Glad to be Gay completing a homage to his glorious past, the set then treads into territory which Robinson has not explored for a while – most of the songs (not all) long forgotten and some of which he has had to relearn the lyrics to. It all works rather well, helped by Andy Treacey on drums, Jim Simmons on keyboard and the wonderful Tim Sanders on saxophone.
‘More Lives Than One’ is a song about Robinson’s bisexuality while the rousing ‘You Tattooed Me’ showcases Sanders’ sublime talent. The first set is completed by Too Good To Be True and Grey Cortina – both integral to the success of Power In The Darkness.
The second set, eight-song strong, includes standouts War Baby and Robinson’s homage to Steely Dan – Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. He also plays Listen To The Radio, a song he wrote in the early 1980s after he fled to Hamburg in order to escape the taxman. It was a transistor radio – and the BBC’s World Service – that kept him sane during such a difficult period in his life.
The show ends with rip roaring versions of Back In the Old Country – where Sanders weaves through the audience like a pied piper – and Old Friend.
As befits someone who has enjoyed great success as a radio presenter, Robinson knows all too well how to win over an audience. The voice might be gruff – and a little more fragile than it once was – but he is smoothness personified.
Yet what makes Robinson so wonderful to watch and listen to are his lyrics. And most importantly of all, the fact that he has lived a life full of ups and downs. Experiences that make him, his music and words, all rather special.
Tom Robinson next plays at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge on Thursday March 1.