From Set List to Venue, an Oxbow Show Is Unpredictable
For twenty years now, Oxbow has been a band that’s hard to pin down. Words like noise, blues and angry tend to be thrown around when discussing these avant-garde rockers. Oxbow’s live performance has always been considered an experience to behold, with the band slaying while singer Eugene Robinson — also known as a competitive fighter — lets laughter, demons and ego run free in an assault on the audience, sometimes with some crotch-to-face action.
“To describe what happens [live], I’d have to go for the blandly generic and just say it’s a rock show. There’s guitar, there’s bass, there’s drums, vocals. Stand close to the stage,” Robinson tells Noisecreep. However, he quickly correcting his own answer, saying, “Except to say it’s just a rock show doesn’t give it justice because — if you’re asking [how] I see what we do — it’s like a studio thing where we open it up. I see what we do as a creation of art, and we just happen to be using music as the medium.”
There are many parts that comprise Oxbow’s live art. Of course all parts are unpredictable in nature, and there are more elements of the live experience like woeful anger, clenched fists and loss of clothes.
“We never really do the same show even though in the media they latch onto certain elements: the nudity, the occasional fighting, and so forth,” Robinson explains. “Our bass player — who is actually an engineer, that’s what he does for a living — did a spreadsheet wherein he listed every single show that we’ve ever played as a band and put together some kind of algorithm and made some sort of determination that we have not a single time played the same set. And this is over 300 plus shows, with the exception of the first year, when he wasn’t thinking about doing it, and we weren’t playing that much anyways. So that’s 19 years instead of a full 20 he’s cataloged it all.”
Of course there was one time Oxbow attempted to play the same set twice. “It was such a noteworthy failed experiment that we’ve never done it again,” Robinson laughs. The desire to recreate the previous night became a mess of alien feelings. “In the middle of the set we said, ‘We’re not doing the rest of the set.’ We experientially just began picking songs out of the songbook and finished the set.
“Technically that really wasn’t the same set. Some bands can pull it off, and I make no value judgments on the ones that play the same set every night, that’s cool,” Robinson remarks. “I’m sure it’s like being in a play. You do the same lines every night, there [are] different colorations and so forth, but it doesn’t work for us.”
The unpredictability of Oxbow shows has sometimes had nothing do with what happens on stage, but about where the stage is and who’s watching them. “A place in Krefeld, Germany,” Robinson quickly says when discussing what could be considered as one of the band’s worst shows. “I can’t even really describe it in a way that does it justice.
“To look at it, some might call it a squat, but it was this big semi-nude, extremely high hippie’s place. He sashayed around with a bong in one hand, with throw pillows all over the floor. It was essentially a guy’s living room, and there was this band from Portland, Ore. opening called Apartment 3G, and they were touring on a record called ‘Stuff That Nobody Likes.’”
Pretty bad, right? Well, it gets worse. “There were four people in the audience. In other words, when we played, it was Apartment 3G. And when Apartment 3G played, it was us watching them. It was horrible and horrifying,” Robinson recalls. “We would have fled and not returned, but the guy that booked the show said, ‘Where are you guys going?’ ‘We’re going to get some food.’ And he was like ‘I’ll go with ya,’ correctly guessing that we were planning on peeling out of town and not playing at all. So he stuck with us like glue.
“We were gonna ditch him and push him out of the van, but we felt bad. So we went back and played the show. As bad as it sounds it does not go down as one of my most hated shows ever.”
One show though stands out for Robinson as a true monument of disaster came on another European tour. “Everyone in the club, the support staff, kept locking the door so people couldn’t get in and turning the light off outside the club. They had no one stationed at the front desk to take tickets. Between the locking the door, turning the lights off … there weren’t many people,” Robinson recollects, telling a tale of simple requests given the finger.
Again, it gets worse. “We asked for a glass of water, and the barmaid walks all the way to the end of the bar and turns the water on and points at it. We had to get the glasses ourselves. In Europe, they give you accommodations. ‘So where are we sleeping?’ ‘Here in the club.’ ‘Do you have blankets?’ The guy yanks down some dusty drapes that had been covering the window. It was this really weird hostility, and then we played and they loved it. They loved us when we played, and as soon as we finished playing they went back to being hostile again,” Robinson says, still astonished by the mystifying behavior of the club’s employees.
“And since hostility begets hostility, I was in high form that evening,” Robinson gleans. “I remember at some point someone from the club tearfully saying to me, ‘You are very anti-social band.’ It was very far from the truth, but with that kind of treatment you can’t expect anything else.”