Robyn Hitchcock Opens 'Storefront' With R.E.M.

Singer/songwriter does mini-sets with members of Athens, Ga., superstar pop group at film opening.

NEW YORK -- The sight of two men standing on a West Village

sidewalk playing folk songs Wednesday night was nothing out of the ordinary -- street

musicians, after all, are nearly as omnipresent as taxis in New York City.

But then again, Robyn Hitchcock and Peter Buck aren't your typical buskers, even if, in

time-honored fashion, they did lay a hat down on the sidewalk to receive donations from

the small but rapt crowd gathered in front of the Film Forum theater on West Houston

Street.

Surrealist pop singer/songwriter Hitchcock gathered with Buck and Michael Stipe,

two-thirds of the chart-topping pop-act R.E.M., to celebrate the official premiere of his

new concert film, "Storefront Hitchcock." The film and recently released soundtrack album document a Hitchcock

performance in front of a storefront window in Manhattan.

"We've played with each other for 13 years. We've got interchangeable guitar styles; we

probably have a lot of the same records," Hitchcock said of his performance with Buck.

"We haven't rehearsed at all."

The evening's celebration even included several short sets of tunes by both Hitchcock

and R.E.M., as well as a few well-chosen covers, for a small, and lucky, group of fans and

friends.

The sets included Hitchcock and guitarist Buck doing a short busking stint -- which had

the duo performing Hitchcock's "Chinese Bones" before the film began -- complete with

the requisite upturned hat for donations, in front of the Film Forum theater. The film,

which includes the Hitchcock song "The Yip Song" (RealAudio

excerpt), had just finished playing inside.

"Have you ever seen your head the size of the bus?" Hitchcock said of seeing himself on

the silver screen. "It's quite unusual to be that size."

Most of the small-but-rapt crowd of Hitchcock fans, film buffs and celebrities watching the

high-profile buskers had come straight from the theater, but a few curious passersby also

joined the impromptu gathering.

One crowd member, Chelsea Miller, a 23-year-old from Long Island and a fan for years

of Hitchcock's and Buck's music, said that it was overwhelming to see them both in such

an intimate setting.

"It was really incredible. Hitchcock really connects with his audience," Miller said. "All

these people [watching] are so jaded to music, but you can tell that they're blown away."

Buck, who wore a long safari coat, brown pants and Converse sneakers, strapped on a

six-string mandolin, while Hitchcock, in a collarless black coat worn over a checkered

shirt, wielded a Martin six-string acoustic guitar. Despite a complete lack of amplification,

and little-to-no rehearsal time, they managed to play a remarkably polished, if short,

outdoor set in the 40-degree weather.

They even took requests, playing Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere," and the folk

standard "Wild Mountain Tide," a song made famous by folk/rock pioneers the Byrds. The

set featured Hitchcock's own compositions as well, including "Viva Sea Tac" and "Queen

of Ides."

R.E.M. lead singer Stipe, standing in the shadows behind the duo with a black scarf

half-covering his eminently recognizable face, seemed to be enjoying the performance.

But when Hitchcock and Buck gestured for him to join them, he firmly declined.

When another pop icon, pioneering avant-garde rocker Lou Reed -- impossible to miss

in his trademark rimless glasses and black leather jacket -- walked out of the theater, he

grinned at Buck and Hitchcock, but didn't stick around to watch.

The crowd, which also included "Storefront Hitchcock" director Jonathan Demme

("Silence of the Lambs," "Philadelphia"), showed its appreciation with both raucous

applause and the occasional dollar bill; it looked like the duo pulled in at least seven

bucks.

"It just seemed so natural. That was the best part of it," New Yorker Josie Diels, 26, said

of the performance.

As the duo ended their set, Hitchcock said, "Well, we're off to get drunk." He and Buck,

along with Stipe and other insiders, adjourned to the chic Bar Cichetti across the street.

Inside the tiny confines of the upscale restaurant, Buck briefly took over on the guitar that

Hitchcock had been playing, as he and Hitchcock worked through a song that revealed

itself to be R.E.M.'s "Electrolite" (RealAudio excerpt), from 1996's

New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

Stipe, dressed in a green-striped, short-sleeved polo shirt, walked over to the duo and

harmonized with Hitchcock on a quiet run-through of a couple of verses of "Electrolite."

It seemed more like a rehearsal than an actual performance, but there was still scattered

applause from the restaurant's hipster denizens as Buck put the instrument away and the

trio sat down to dinner.

But the evening's music was far from over. According to Rick Gershon, head of the

publicity department at Warner Bros. Records, Stipe, Hitchcock and Buck later performed

a mini-gig in the restaurant.

At the suggestion of the establishment's owner, they stood atop an antique bureau and

ran through Hitchcock's "Listening To The Higsons," the Byrds' arrangement of the

traditional "Bells of Rhymney," Johnny Kidd's "Shakin' All Over," complete with

impromptu lyrics, and "Electrolite."

Before performing "Electrolite," Hitchcock mentioned to Stipe that he'd like to share the

vocals -- but that he needed help with the lyrics. Stipe went to the bar and scrawled out

the lyrics longhand for his friend.

In a rare public performance on the instrument, the typically guitar-shy Stipe even briefly

played Hitchcock's six-string, Gershon said.

"Spontaneity is key for everything we want to do now," Buck said of R.E.M.'s plans. "What

we want to do is play live, but also do creative work: write new songs for a new album --

which will happen -- and do soundtracks, that kind of thing."

While the after-hours crowd mostly was made up of industry insiders associated with

Hitchcock, R.E.M. and Demme -- at least one interloper quietly was asked to leave the

restaurant -- one couple who was still eating when the entourage arrived managed to sit

quietly in a back corner for the whole show, Gershon said.

"They were mildly surprised," he said, "and well-entertained."

(Staff Writer Chris Nelson contributed to this report.)