Live Music + Gig Reviews

Henry Rollins @ Royal Festival Hall, London

15 January 2010

There’s no one quite like Henry Rollins. A mass of contradictions, as the lead singer of Black Flag and his own Henry Rollins Band, he managed to inject thoughtful introspection into punk rock, belying not only the style of music, but also his meathead tattooed muscular exterior.

Over the last few years he’s spent his time honing the art of talking. He’s had a chat show, he’s done voiceovers, and he’s become a modern day raconteur. A self-confessed Anglophile, tonight he found himself bringing his spoken word shtick to the Royal Festival Hall as part of a UK tour.
Looking fit rather than bulky these days, Rollins took to the centre of a huge bare stage with nothing but a black backdrop, a microphone and two amps. Dressed in black trousers, black t-shirt and a pair of trainers, the only visual colour came from the 48-year old’s ashen salt and pepper hair. It’s not easy to fill a whole evening with nothing but one’s speaking voice, but he was immediately into his role, and rattled off his thoughts with hardly a breath for the next three hours.

The material was a series of set pieces pitched somewhere between a stand-up comedy routine and a Mark Thomas gig. Most were based around his recent travels to Asia. Anecdotes of hanging out with mega-rich princes in Saudi Arabia, introducing The Stooges to the wide-eyed teenage populace of Sri Lanka and his time spent trying to get local first-hand knowledge of the results of the industrial disaster in Bhopal at times felt like the self-indulgency of someone wanting to tell people about his holiday.

It certainly wasn’t a confessional. His audience was let in, but at arm’s length. Rollins was present at the scene of every story he told, and we were alongside him, but never under his skin. We didn’t hear much about his life as a singer, and forays into his personal life were restricted to letting us know he’s found himself a girlfriend who’s able to put up with his eccentricities. But it was all delivered with such charm, panache and eloquence that the fact that maybe the subject matter wasnt exactly what was hoped for could be forgiven.

His talents as an impressionist were also revealed as he successfully took on the likes of Barack Obama, Pat Robertson and gay cavemen. And while politics were behind most of what he said, he didn’t preach… much. He simply has opinions on everything and wanted to convey them to us. He tells us that the older he gets, the more pissed off he gets, and you believe him, but he seems so even-handed and rational, that it’s hard to picture him being genuinely enraged anymore.

Rollins has smashed away the myth of punk rockers. They can be normal just like the rest of us. He’s talented and intelligent, and comes across without any attitude or aggression. He’s someone who reacts to situations in the same way as any other open-minded liberal person might. If he had one over-arching message, it was best summed up in his call he once made during a speech to graduates to “rumble, young people, rumble”. Clearly Rollins is still rumbling even as he approaches 50.

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Henry Rollins @ Royal Festival Hall, London