An outlandish element of surprise always spearheads my Robyn Hitchcock outings. The terms “quirky” and “eccentric” on an event listing were what first fueled my fantasies, so I headed to Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music in 2009 to catch the British singer-songwriter cult icon perform with Tim “Captain” Keegan and Terry Edwards. There, a recorder blared snippets from “I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl” before the trio entered the stage. A bubbling cauldron of genres ranging from: barbershop quartet, heart-wringing ballads and instrumental odes to desolation transpired. The repertoire was drawn from Hitchcock’s 1984 think-piece I Often Dream of Trains.
The next sighting happened at the Epiphany Church. But, when I got there, the lights were out and the doors were bolted shut. Luckily, a couple from Minneapolis and a fanatic with a Blackberry helped me solve the last-minute venue change mystery. Consequently, we taxied to the Logan Square Auditorium together. These Hitchcock hurricane chasers had seen more than 15 shows. Sometimes they grabbed flights from city to city, within a single evening, to catch their idol. Miraculously, we got there on time…don’t ask me how. Performing with the Venus 3, Hitchcock played splendidly, but being part of an ensemble, his virtuosity remained hidden.
The third surprise came tonight. At Schuba’s, the second annual Chicago International Movies and Music Festival was screening the I Often Dream of Trains documentary which profiles the troubadour’s creation of this introspective album project. Directed by UK’s John Edginton, the film chronicles Hitchcock’s songwriting process, and live New York performance.
On camera, Hitchcock deftly wrestled with damaged equipment and performed searing instrumentals. He poured his heart out over failed love and loneliness. It was surreal to imagine that this popular artist, sporting a polka-dotted shirt with a matching guitar, dripping vividly from the screen, would soon be gracing us solo.
After the screening ended, an irritated fan demanded that Hitchcock play a song. He was politely asked to wait until the late-night concert. “Just one song,” the admirer begged. The show was sold out. He didn’t have a ticket. This would be his last chance. The whining request was denied. Hitchcock made a hilarious existential non-sequitor to deflect the fan’s grimace and politely left the platform. Edginton followed Hitchcock into the brisk night.
But, besides this unexpected event, I didn’t expect anything unusual to happen tonight. Minus the huff and the puff of other players, wouldn’t tonight’s performance be less lushly textured? I mean, how much intensity could a singular performer evoke?
Or would I be dead wrong? Hitchcock once again strolled towards us, through the exit door, wearing a form-fitted, black Brit-pop jacket. “Why were the polka dots bigger on the guitar? Why did you leave and change into a paisley shirt?” snarled a woman, even as aggressive grunts of “Shut up” by an angry man, echoed from the back.
When Hitchcock’s guitar crashed to the ground, he salvaged it calmly and walked the woman through a series of humorous Sartrean machinations which skated around the nature of mortality. Then, he brushed a tambourine across his palm, played a litany of driving barre chords, and thumped the intro to “Only The Stones Remain”. Flavoring cadences with irresistible falsetto, Hitchcock’s silhouette created an aura of eerie intimacy.
At every concert I’ve seen, his presentation always manages to make the mind wander. Imagine holding hands around a table at a séance and encountering the beloved ghost of a distant past – that’s the chill Hitchcock resonates. His music has an ancient grip that’s as pleasing as it is unsettling.
“Home is the sailor” and similar strains of poetry stream through my mind. Fingerpicking ferociously to a few sea shanties, the more cataclysmic number, “The Wreck of The Arthur Lee” erected vehemently on the fretboard’s plank, Hitchcock proves that he is a fine guitarist. Celtic hammer-ons, bright harmonics and mighty melodic lines underscored his still powerful voice; potent even after three decades.
Flecks of emotion marred his vulnerable face. But, the cavalier way he shrugged back his head, as his silver hair blew against his forehead, made for a very seafaring and beautiful stage picture. Poker-faced, Hitchcock requested more reverb for his bebop “horn” solo – really a series of nonsense syllables.
The “dirge-pop” of “I’m Falling” and “Up To Our Nex” give way to lighter fare; carefully articulated picking, brisk strums and catchy hooks. Then, the port-in-the-storm drifts of “Goodnight Oslo” (from the eponymous album) begin. It’s a mature song wounded by a sense of loss; the lyrics are old-school and weathered. This album, he explains, represented another stage in his life. It may have been a stage aligned with Picasso’s blue period.
Sometimes Hitchcock’s performance is so deeply moving, you want it to end because the manipulation of mood is alienating. He’s in the driver’s seat of your mind and that’s disconcerting. Mid-song he breaks into another off-kilter harangue, dampens the strings, and drenches your heart.
This feels like the finale. Hitchcock’s eyes hold a pained expression. Can there be more plunges into darkness or eccentric observations? After blasts of applause, Hitchcock dryly states that he won’t bother going off stage for encores, and he doesn’t. Standing in place, he delivers a slow-moving Doors ballad about a crystal ship. He pays tribute to Nick Drake. He lauds the memory of Syd Barrett, one of his major influences, by launching into “Gigolo Aunt”. He mumbles passages from the drug-splattered “Astronomy Domine”.
These homages unravel some of the mystery Hitchcock imbues. Rarely have I heard him perform covers, but murmurs from decades-old fans suggest that these tunes weren’t that much of a stretch. The closer “Visions of Johanna” was the piece de resistance. Strapping a blues-harp around his neck, and masticating the sawed-off edges of key phrases, Hitchcock performed this Dylan classic superbly.
“Dylan, Barrett, Drake and Hitchcock” sound like a posh British law firm. It’s fitting that an entertainer with such a vulnerable persona might require the comfort of some stable, equitable partners. The film and the concert were a thrilling third surprise. Ultimately, after so many hours of Hitchcock, I could almost imagine him leaping off the screen and landing on the folding chair next to my attaché. Hitchcock had a birthday recently and birthdays frequently yield surprises. Besides, if one often dreams of trains, this ageless man is still bound for glory.