Live Music + Gig Reviews

Robyn Hitchcock @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

29 January 2008


When the history of popular music’s first 100 yearsis written, it will be interesting to see where thelines are drawn.

Here we are, already halfway through(or is it more? Should we be including jazz and bluesrather than limiting the start to rock’n’roll?) andalready things have changed so much that it’ssometimes hard to know for sure which line of thepopular/classical divide we’re on. Or, in fact, ifthere ever was one in the first place.

Take this evening’s entertainment. The venue: theQueen Elizabeth Hall, in that bastion of middle classartsiness that is The South Bank Centre. The supportact: Rasputina – two women with cellos and aman on drums dressed in Civil War regalia, singingsongs about the captain of the Bounty and 1861 whilelooking like Bat For Lashes on (even better)acid.

A music hall act for a new century in whichmusic halls no longer exist but the Carling Academiesof this world aren’t quite right either. Next door,you’ll find Daniel Barenboim and Beethovensonatas. In the bar, it’s difficult to tell whichaudience members are here for which performance.

Which brings us to tonight’s main man RobynHitchcock, a quintessentially English performer whoowes the most debt to folk traditions rooted in thisfair isle and which long pre-date Chuck Berryor even the lineage that brought us Dylan.Might we have ended up here anyway, without themusical revolution America exported to us? I ratherlike to think we would.

Starting his career with ‘psychedelic punk’ bandThe Soft Boys, since the early 80s Hitchcockhas been better known as a solo artist, with hisfinest moment widely agreed to have been his thirdsolo album, 1984’s I Often Dream Of Trains. Mostlyacoustic, largely a solo effort and full of whimsical,clever, gently dark songs about typically Englishpreoccupations from disused tram lines, dead wives,psychosis and religion, tonight’s gig is a livereinterpretation of that entire album. The ‘Director’sCut’, he calls it, and don’t bother – he got to theobvious joke before you.

To put the evening into context, and perhaps tosave himself from accusations of self-absorption,Hitchcock starts with a cover of More Than This, aRoxy Music song contemporary to those he willplay tonight, and avoids the Don’t Look Back formulaof simply recreating the album in order by ignoringsome tracks (I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl) andsubstituting others (My Wife And My Dead Wife) intheir place.

The choices keep the evening interesting, keep youguessing as to what will come next. As in the caseeverywhere in Hitchcock’s music, there’s anundercurrent to the surface comfort. Things aren’tquite as safe as you think.

The effect is close to perfection. Dressed in fadedjeans and a hippie shirt, floppy-fringed with anacoustic guitar, Hitchcock is the original twistedfolk troubadour made good, surviving where JohnLennon and Syd Barrett didn’t, staying trueto his roots where Dylan plugged in.

The beautiful moments are plentiful, but thosedeserving a special mention are the three-part vocalharmony of Uncorrected Personality Traits, with TerryEdwards and Tim Keegan; the deliciously darkfaux-Americana country gospel of Ye Sleeping Knightsof Jesus, and the glorious decision to close the nighton Goodnight I Say, from 1985’s Fegmania.

In between,he treats us to his own songs and those of others -The Incredible String Band’s The Yellow Snake,for one – snippets of poetry and spoken word,inter-song banter and words of wisdom: ‘that voiceinside your head that says he’s your mate? Don’t givehim your pin number’.

It’s spaceman music, but spaceman musicwell-grounded, matured and grown up and worthy oftaking its place in a room next door to Beethoven.Perhaps the South Bank is the perfect venue for himafter all.


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