In a world that (quite rightly) holds the psychedelic ramblings of Syd Barrett in such high esteem why the chuff isn’t Robyn Hitchcock much better known and respected? It’s a mystery to me, just like some of his lyrics in fact, but as I’m discovering, that’s part of the charm of a man who has, for over 30 years, seemingly ploughed his own sweet furrow through the musical landscape.
Before diving into a world of sex, death and insects (these, famously, seem to be the subjects that most preoccupy Mr H) we had another cult figure in the form of Mike Heron, one of the founder fathers of The Incredible String Band – a legendary psych folk group who, I’m sure I read somewhere, went on to influence a little known rock band called Led Zeppelin. Now where the hell did they expect to get with a ridiculous name like that eh? Tonight Mike was joined by his daughter Georgia Seddon and another lady on a fiddle whose name I missed (‘cos I’m a bit slow) and together they gave us an intimate set that covered some of the Incredible String Band’s tracks (‘Painting Box’ was one of the standout numbers) as well as several of Georgia’s own compositions. Georgia’s got a beautiful voice and a couple of her solo songs (just her on a keyboard), ‘Bridges’ and ‘Bird’ were just gorgeous.
There wasn’t a huge crowd tonight but by the time Robyn came on there were just enough people in the room to create a decent atmosphere. I must admit I’m pretty new to Mr Hitchcock’s oeuvre and I didn’t really know what to expect from the live show. I knew he played on his own sometimes or with various bands (notably the Venus 3 featuring Peter Buck from REM), he’s also well known for lengthy in between song chats...perhaps, like his film directing namesake (but no relation), he likes keeping his audiences in suspense? Tonight we got Robyn (sporting a lively black and white polka dot shirt and matching guitar) with band (guitar, drums, percussion and cello) and, from the outset, any expectations of the evening were knocked into a cocked hat, albeit one stuffed full of insects having sex with dead rock stars. Before the gig started Robyn got all of the TVs that line the wall of the venue turned off (they’re on all of the time there to advertise forthcoming gigs...Scouting For Fish, Mr Blobby’s 25th Anniversary Tour, Chiddy Chiddy Bang Bang...that sort of thing). One by one the screens were banished by some silent operative up in the sound booth, somehow this little moment felt like we were being temporarily cut off from the outside world and plunged deep into Robyn’s. Then the ‘Wreck of The Arthur Lee’ opened proceedings, building slowly it morphed into a bewitching Sergeant Pepper-y climax and, from that moment on, I was a fully blown convert. Hitchcockalujah!
Whilst Robyn’s not, in the conventional sense, the strongest vocalist in the world there are touches of Dylan, Lennon, Barrett and Bowie in there...in other words some of the most interesting voices of the last 40 years. Get into it and it’s a wonderful thing...dreamy and spaced out but still capable of delivering a killer chorus. Having a band behind him makes all the difference and tonight a couple of the guys added backing vocals which, like the seasoning on a nice piece of fillet steak, just got your mouthwatering that little bit more. The addition of a cello player was similarly inspired, giving a lushness to the material that’s not always there on some of the recorded or live versions that I've been listening to.
There wasn’t too much chat tonight, Robyn blamed the volcanic ash for getting into his throat, but he did find time to riff about whether the dragon (from Bruce Lee’s ‘Enter the Dragon’) had ever exited...or whether it was stuck on the 17th Floor of the nearby Radisson Hotel. He also explained why goldfish never mistook boiling water for normal temperature water...they have a built in heat seeking device. It makes sense to me. Have you ever seen a goldfish leap into a cup of tea? Exactly. Er...anyway, back to the music. Like I say, I’m pretty new to all this stuff but there were a good half a dozen tracks from tonight’s set that really stuck a chord. On top of Arthur Lee, standouts included ‘America’ (The Beatles meet the Psychedelic Furs), ‘Antwoman’ (a twisted T-Rex-ish tune), ‘Sounds Great When You’re Dead’, ‘NY Doll’ (a slow burning tribute to another dead Arthur...this time Mr ‘Killer’ Kane from the New York Dolls), ‘Ordinary Millionaire’ (with music written by Jonny Marr no less) and ‘Zipper In My Spine’ (the most Bowie-ish – Ziggy era – track of tonight’s set). I list all these tracks purely to give you an entry into what is, by anyone’s standards, an extensive archive of material. And enter it you should. Sometimes you find that a ‘cult artist’ is a cult for a reason...either they’re just too out there for your average punter or they’re actually no bloody good. Neither of these applies to Mr Hitchcock, which makes his relative obscurity in the UK (he seems to have more of a following in the US) even more odd. Continue to ignore him and, well, you’re just ‘Robyn’ yourself of a truly, truly great artist.