Monday, May 4, 2009

Last Night at the Mercury Lounge

Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson's eponymous debut album, recorded three years ago and released last year, is a heart-wrenching glorious and gritty creation, an epic chronicle of struggle, death, and redemption. Somehow I stumbled upon the song Buriedfed and fell instantly in love with this kid, as he seemed to me, whose youth seems at odds with his ragged old-soul voice. A New Yorker by way of Oregon, Robinson has been called Brooklyn's best kept secret. I've been wanting to see him perform for ages.

Which is how I found myself staying up too late last night, down at the Mercury Lounge, where I spotted Miles Benjamin himself, having a drink at the bar before it was time for his headlining performance. With encouragement from my friend Peter, I approached the singer and introduced myself, wishing him good luck onstage. I guess I should have told him to break a leg instead, because the resulting show ended up being fraught with technical difficulties. However, broken strings, tangled cords, and false starts couldn't mar the beauty and magic of Robinson's performance.

Backed by musicians Will Cameron (of the U.K., of the late Blondelle, and, can I say, so young!) on bass and keyboards, Marque Toliver on violin and keyboards, and the very able David Jack Daniels on drums, Miles ripped through his first few songs--"old stuff," he said--with a love-hate passion that left me wishing for the soulfulness of the recorded album but blown away by the breathtaking energy and electricity of the familiar songs taken to their breaking point. Literally. While Robinson scrambled to restring his own guitar, Toliver (with one pant-leg mysteriously rolled up to his knee) jammed on his violin, leading the others in an enthralling spur of the moment tune that eventually evolved into a cover of The National's Abel. Where the show might have been derailed, the audience was instead captivated, and by the time Robinson was able to jump back in and take over, the show was already a success. Robinson let a scruffy guy from the audience fix his broken strings after that, and set about the business of some serious rock'n'roll.

Moving through his set of garage-pop meets retrofuture (or however the hipsters might describe them) songs, each with their own moments of genius, I felt like I was witnessing something more interesting than perfection. Great music is great music, but its not every day that you see greatness being invented on the spot. While it was clear these musicians had not practiced nearly enough together, their scrappiness, like the themes of Robinson's songs, couldn't hide their skills, and my jaw dropped more than a few times at the talent before me. With his natural genius for lyrics and his obvious passion for a thumping beat, Robinson sought to lead his band to musical nirvana, and just about succeeded.

Besides his voice, which is amazingly full of natural reverb, the thing I love most about Robinson's live performance is that he sings with a huge grin on his face, gazing up as if at the stars. He might be laughing at his own misfortunes, having a moment of transcendental revelation, or just enjoying the moment. By all accounts, this songwriter's life has been fraught with all of the substance abuse, addictions, and bouts of homelessness that might have stifled a lesser talent. But with the help of good friends like Kyp Malone (from TV on the Radio) and the guys in Grizzly Bear, Robinson has scraped himself up off the pavement, and turned the tragedy of his personal demons into soulfully real music. “His songs are given flesh and blood in a way that most rock music now doesn’t allow time for. Very little of his content is upbeat. There’s no whitewashing of his perspective on the human experience. Listening to it is edifying. MBAR is my favourite songwriter right now,” says Malone.

With his lyrics ("this is my last song about myself/about my friends/found something else to sing...") still rippling around the New York music scene, Robinson is headed to the U.K. for an eleven-day tour, and after that he's moving to Portland, where he plans to focus on writing, recording new music, and forming a new band. Talking with Peter and I after the show, he sounded wistful, like he wasn't sure if he was on his way home or leaving it. Well, I'm glad I caught up with him along the way. Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson is going places.

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