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The Globe ans Mail logo Sing If You're Glad To Be Tom
By Alan Neister

A recent episode of Rock and Roll Jeopardy posed the question, er, answer, that "he was the first rock performer to openly espouse his gay lifestyle." The answer, uh, question provided as the correct response was Vince Clarke of Erasure.

Seems the little fact-checking gnomes who write the show had completely forgotten about Britain's Tom Robinson who, some years previously in 1977, had a hit single with the totally unambiguous Glad to Be Gay. (And no, we're not even going to contemplate Little Richard at this point.)

Back in the mid-seventies, the Cambridge-born Robinson looked to be one of the brightest young stars on the pop horizon.

Leading a punk-tinged New Wave outfit called The Tom Robinson Band, his catchy 2-4-6-8 Motorway had been a huge hit, and the subsequent album release Power in the Darkness, containing politically charged numbers such as Up Against the Wall and Don't Take No for an Answer,firmly established Robinson as a whip-smart pop spokesman for the liberal left.

Almost 25 years on, he is still playing out his career in the music business. At 50, his brush cut, shorts and T-shirt give him the appearance of an aging but energetic punk. He is now married, with a child (he publicly embraced bisexuality about 1990, and now occasionally refers to himself as The Artist Formerly Known As Gay) and travels not with a band, but with an acoustic guitar.

He is still, however, a loud, funny, riveting and totally absorbing live performer, as he proved to a virtually full house at Queen Street's Rivoli Thursday night.

Robinson performed two sets, the first, as he noted, was filled with the songs that made him famous, including his "medley of hit" 2-4-6-8 Motorway.

The late set contained newer material, including some spoken-word passages. At this point, his style is an entertaining mish-mash of folk-punk and traditional British music hall. His first two numbers were examples of the former, as he screamed out ragged but pointed lyrics on Never Get Old (a pointed message to boomers -- "Did you think we'd never get old/take a good look at me now") and a roisterous version of Up Against the Wall, which had a slightly dated feel due to its lyrical content, raising the ghosts of "Brixton" and "the welfare state."

His feel-good music-hall side was displayed on the amusingly autobiographical Martin, which required a singalong contribution from the audience, and Jacques Brel's Les Bourgeois, which he has taken the trouble to translate literally into "Yuppie Scum".

Glad to Be Gay and Motorway were resurrected as campfire songs, and his single collaboration with Peter Gabriel, Atmospherics (Listen to the Radio) -- a hit for the Pukka Orchestra -- was performed as a jazz-tinged cabaret number, complete with Carrie Chessnut on sax and beat-box backing.

Perhaps the most interesting number of the night, however, was another cover.

Robinson introduced his version of Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side, claiming that "without this song, I never would have written Glad to Be Gay, I never even would have strapped on a guitar." It seems that the power that Robinson drew from the song still resonates to this day.

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