When the history of popular music’s first 100 years is written, it will be interesting to see where the lines are drawn. Here we are, already halfway through (or is it more? Should we be including jazz and blues rather than limiting the start to rock ‘n’ roll?) and already things have changed so much that it’s sometimes hard to know for sure which line of the popular/classical divide we’re on. Or, in fact, if there ever was one in the first place.
Take this evening’s entertainment. The venue: theQueen Elizabeth Hall, in that bastion of middle class artsiness that is The South Bank Centre. The support act: Rasputina – two women with cellos and a man on drums dressed in Civil War regalia, singing songs about the captain of the Bounty and 1861 while looking like Bat For Lashes on (even better) acid.
A music hall act for a new century in which music halls no longer exist but the Carling Academies of this world aren’t quite right either. Next door, you’ll find Daniel Barenboim and Beethoven sonatas. In the bar, it’s difficult to tell which audience members are here for which performance.
Which brings us to tonight’s main man Robyn Hitchcock, a quintessentially English performer who owes the most debt to folk traditions rooted in this fair isle and which long pre-date Chuck Berry or even the lineage that brought us Bob Dylan. Might we have ended up here anyway, without the musical revolution America exported to us? I rather like to think we would.
Starting his career with ‘psychedelic punk’ band The Soft Boys, since the early ’80s Hitchcock has been better known as a solo artist, with his finest moment widely agreed to have been his third solo album, 1984’s I Often Dream Of Trains. Mostly acoustic, largely a solo effort and full of whimsical, clever, gently dark songs about typically English preoccupations from disused tram lines, dead wives, psychosis and religion, tonight’s gig is a live reinterpretation of that entire album. The ‘Director’s Cut’, he calls it, and don’t bother – he got to the obvious joke before you.
To put the evening into context, and perhaps to save himself from accusations of self-absorption, Hitchcock starts with a cover of More Than This, a Roxy Music song contemporary to those he will play tonight, and avoids the Don’t Look Back formula of simply recreating the album in order by ignoring some tracks (I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl) and substituting others (My Wife And My Dead Wife) in their place.
The choices keep the evening interesting, keep you guessing as to what will come next. As in the case everywhere in Hitchcock’s music, there’s an undercurrent to the surface comfort. Things aren’t quite as safe as you think. The effect is close to perfection. Dressed in faded jeans and a hippie shirt, floppy-fringed with an acoustic guitar, Hitchcock is the original twisted folk troubadour made good, surviving where John Lennon and Syd Barrett didn’t, staying true to his roots where Dylan plugged in.
The beautiful moments are plentiful, but those deserving a special mention are the three-part vocal harmony of Uncorrected Personality Traits, with Terry Edwards and Tim Keegan; the deliciously dark faux-Americana country gospel of Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus, and the glorious decision to close the night on 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 voice inside your head that says he’s your mate? Don’t give him your pin number’. It’s spaceman music, but spaceman music well-grounded, matured and grown up and worthy of taking its place in a room next door to Beethoven. Perhaps the South Bank is the perfect venue for him after all.