Tim Robbins honks the good fight

I wish I could tell you that Tim Robbins fought the good fight, and the critics let him be. I wish I could tell you that – but the folk fest is no fairy-tale world. Folk fest life consists of routine, and then more routine. Every so often, Tim would show up with a fresh song. The critics kept at him. Sometimes he was able to fight them off, sometimes not. And that’s how it went for Tim. That was his routine. I do believe those first two songs were the worst for him, and I also believe that if things had gone on that way, this place would have got the best of him …

But then he got better, found his paradise and everything was fine. Roll credits.

Returning to the real world of the folk fest: With his large and multi-instrumental “Rogues Gallery Band,” Tim Robbins played a decent set of upbeat, socially-conscious songs for throngs of fans at Stage 3 on Saturday afternoon. The show was so good we almost forgot this was the A-list actor known for such movies as the Shawshank Redemption, and accepted that this guy could actually have a career as a folk singer if that Hollywood thing doesn’t work out. Sure beats Billy Bob Thornton or Russell Crowe, so Robbins is way ahead in the movie star-turned-musician game.

Robbins is what is known in the trade as a “honker,” that is, someone who is fully aware he can’t sing, but doesn’t care. This sort of braying enthusiasm went a long way towards winning over the audience for an eclectic set punctuated by blasts of blues and rock ‘n’ roll and gospel and Bob Dylan mentality and Tom Waits-ish eccentricity, but showing its best side in the whomping, tromping, country two-steppers. The Honker works best in a more raucous setting. His band, featuring his brother Dave, was excellent. That sure helped.

Tim’s political lean – that is, left – could be detected from several of his original songs. One awkward tune in particular was inspired by a conversation he had with a 22-year-old soldier who did things he wasn’t proud of in Iraq.

“Do you know that I killed some children? … I thought they were terrorists,” goes the verse, with the repeated chorus of “I love kids.” That it was a happy, major-key, upbeat rock ‘n’ roll number just made it extra weird. Other songs were similarly wordy. It’s as Robbins’ worthy ideas are too big to be shoehorned into simple folk songs. He’d best brush up on his “economy in language” if he’s serious about being a serious songwriter. That he and the band later did some John Prine shows he’s on the right track.

Better was a song he dedicated – and must’ve been written recently – to the “poor people who wanted to get Raptured up, but didn’t get lifted up.” Cue a breakneck fast gospel stomp, followed by an even more ridiculously speedy tune that brought the entire crowd to its feet. Must’ve been at least 2,000 just at the one stage

I must admit I didn’t think much of Tim Robbins first time I laid eyes on him. Looked like a stiff G-chord would blow him over. That was my first impression of the man. I could see why some of the folk fest purists took him for snobby. He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn’t normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place. Yeah, I think it would be fair to say I liked Tim Robbins from the start.