Friday, 8 March 2013
Robyn Hitchcock, The Bodega, Nottingham, 7.3.13
Early on in the show, Hitchcock reminds us that he's over 60 now, which of course means he has a vast back-catalogue to draw on, from his solo career, as a member of the Soft Boys, and from his recent work with the Venus 3.
I've always preferred his solo acoustic mode, though, especially live, and it's good to see him re-interpreting old material with just a guitar and harmonica. It's a reminder of just what an inventive guitarist he is, and it frees his superb songs from the sometimes fussy arrangements that have buried them at times in the past.
One half of that songwriting craft is strong, plangent tunes with infusions of both folk and psychedelia. The other is his lyrics, and I'd guess that they're what mean you either love or hate Hitchcock. To his detractors, he's guilty of being by turns wilfully obscure, wacky, and superficially surreal. To his fans, he's a genuine poet.
I'm in the latter camp. Occasionally, he does overdo it (though let's face it, most writers occasionally get stuck on their default settings), but the key, I think, is how strongly Hitchcock commits to his particular vision. His between-song banter is in exactly the same vein as his lyrics, and in both the wilder, sillier fancies are contrasted by frequent use of highly resonant images, and occasional startling directness. This is a man who can place the lines "the sun is shining very hard / it melts both margarine and lard" in close proximity to "I'm in love with you" and carry them both off with aplomb in a song of shimmering beauty.
He's also unafraid to return to the same themes and strands of imagery again and again - mortality has always been a major concern, and it's heightened with each new release. But although at one point he sums life up by saying "it doesn't end well", he's never hopelessly gloomy - hopelessly romantic is more like it. And as always, fish and insects dart and flit out out of his songs, manifestations of a long-term obsession.
Highlights are a mid-show run of three songs from what, to me, is his best album, Eye (it's a close thing, but I think it edges his better-known and much praised I Often Dream Of Trains). Clean Steve, Queen Elvis, and especially the lovely Aquarium ("all you need is love / but all you get is afraid") outshine even the best Venus 3 track here - Saturday Groovers.
Soft Boys classic Only The Stones gets a deservedly warm welcome, representing as it does Hitchcock's knack of making serious points in an offbeat fashion, and he ends with nods back to two of his 60s inspirations, covering Waterloo Sunset and Arnold Layne with conviction and care. Given the frequency with which Syd Barrett is cited as his major influence by music journalists, the latter could be risky, but the truth is that Hitchcock has long since reached legendary status himself.