Live Music + Gig Reviews

Tim Robbins @ Union Chapel, London

30 September 2010

Actors-turned-singers surely go into the brave new music world expecting an intense critical analysis. Taking a short cut to a recording contract leaves their status not too far removed from beneficiaries of nepotism or reality television. But it’s not just a matter of envy – an unbiased selection process is there to ensure that music is released because it stands on its own merits.

Oscar winner Tim Robbins’ recently released first album didn’t make that grade, our reviewer describing it as a “rich actor’s vanity project”. But wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt, and hoping that these songs might really come to life when performed live, we went to see him and his band, The Rogues Gallery, play them out.

His compositions take their cues from the likes of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, with influences based solidly in the Americana that seems all pervasive right now. And so his seven-strong Rogues Gallery play a variety of instruments including the ukulele, double bass, accordion and naturally, the musical saw. They all do absolutely what’s asked of them, but don’t inject much passion into the evening.

Robbins perhaps realises this, and occasionally tries to stir things up. “I wrote this song when I was 25, broke, hungry and in love,” he says, introducing bland ballad Dreams. “I’m not broke anymore but I’m still hungry.” It’s one of only a handful of moments when he opens himself up. There is little in the way of raconteuring and no insight into his life as a Hollywood A-lister. The evening lacks the one thing it was hoped that Robbins would bring to the stage – charisma. Attempts to get the audience participating lead to a perhaps contrived, but at least lively, run through of the gospel-tinged O Mary Don’t You Weep.

He does best when covering other people’s songs and his targets – Johnny Cash‘s Folsom Prison Blues, Billie Holiday‘s What A Little Moonlight Can Do and best of all Tom Waits‘s All The World Is Green – show us who he admires. But it’s painfully obvious that he’s not at their level. In this unforgiving venue, Robbins’s voice is just not strong enough to sing these songs the way he’d like them to be sung and he struggles and whines and drawls around the notes.

It would be wrong to knock Robbins for having the creativity and ambition in him to write these songs and for taking advantage of the situation he’s in, so that he can make some of his dreams come true. It’s a brilliant personal achievement and hopefully the creation of these songs that he says he’s been writing all of his adult life will bring him some satisfaction. But his record doesn’t hold strong against the quality of the competition out there, and in person he doesn’t do much to fix it.

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Tim Robbins @ Union Chapel, London
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