It was the end of the world and Brian Robinson, bouncing up and down in a flower-dotted yellow dress on the cusp on his 41st birthday, knew it. Behind him, a string quartet played on, rap-tap-tapping drums carrying its members toward a big finale. Before him, a a packed Lyric Hall was rising to its feet, audience members old and young bobbing to R.E.M. as he jumped off the stage and into a frenzied, lovable sort of mosh-pit-meets-dance-hall.
“It’s the end of the wooooorrrrrrllld as we know it,” he crooned with the group, “It’s the end of the wooooorrrrrrllld as we know it. It’s the end of the wooooorrrrrrllld as we know it. And I feel fine.”
The crowd cheered around him. Robinson, drenched in sweat, lifted his broad, grinning face to the ceiling. Onstage, musicians Alexis Yolanda, Brian Slattery, Anjanine Bonet, Justina Sullivan, and Jef Wilson pulled back their bows and drumsticks for a final, striking note.
Friday, the R.E.M. standard marked the end of a semi-epic lineup fêting Robinson, founder of the New Haven-based Tet Offensive, in time for his 41th birthday at Lyric Hall. With bands If Jesus Had Machine Guns and The Simple Pleasure, Robinson embraced a night where new and old musical worlds collided, playing crowd favorites like “Stalin Says Drink Coke” — about which he was sure to clarify that he felt just fine — while also debuting new work, something the group hasn’t done for a while.
A wondrous fusion of smart, sharp-tongued to wistful rock and breathing, emotive string arrangements, the Tet Offensive isn’t new. But its current configuration — Yolanda, Slattery, Bonet, and Sullivan as the quartet, Wilson on drums, and Robinson at the helm on vocals and arrangements — is. For some time, mellifluous tectonic plates have been shifting beneath the musician’s feet, New Haven’s transient population forcing him to replace quartet members who have never fully called the city home.
Friday, they settled, a momentary, celebrated sense of just-rightness coming before some sartorial snap judgements and the band’s quirky brand of classical and crass, a quartet that, as he has said in previous interviews, can totally shred and grind.
“It’s great to have, like, townies in the group,” Robinson exclaimed Friday night as he took the stage, four costume changes waiting in the wings. He would later declare the evening, thanks in no small part to the group behind him, “the best fucking birthday party ever.”
Sheet by sheet, carefully arranged music gave way to new songs. Rocking methodically, then wildly, to looped, suspenseful strings — a shrill violin to fast, full-bellied cello — he wowed and delighted with lyrics “Fell in love with the devil / Felt pretty good,” moving from a shoulder sway into a thrash (Robinson is one of those musicians who performs with his entire body) at the lip of the stage. Or his incredibly funny, poppily-orchestrated and upbeat “Regular Girls,” performed in a cascading judge wig and anything but regular as the words tumbled, dripping with wit and irony, from his mouth.
Change and novelty set the tone Friday night. From If Jesus Had Machine Guns frontman Jimi Patterson came a surprising sort of synthy, hair-band-era-soaked, wounded rock opera to which he danced like David Byrne on acid and announced, with member Jason Sirianni still playing, that it would be the band’s last show.
Or from Philly, dynamic, uber-kinetic The Simple Pleasure (Chad Raines and Admiral Grey), who thrilled with their sound design and tight, joyful vocals, announcing that they too are about to make a change in buying a van and going on tour. While Patterson is moving onto a new chapter, they’re committing to this one, and seeing where it takes them.
Robinson could feel that in the crowd too.
And for him, that’s just fine.