“This next song is the hat from which I was magically pulled out,” Robyn Hitchcock before launching into a reverent rendition of Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde epic “Visions Of Johanna”. Hitchcock is known for peppering his live sets with colorful banter, usually of the non sequitur or surrealist variety. But this remark was particularly revealing.
Hitchcock is most often compared to his English songwriting brethren John Lennon and Syd Barrett, but it’s with Dylan that Hitchcock’s true alliances lie. His best work captures the waking dream quality of “Johanna”. Hitchcock’s often-hallucinatory imagery isn’t simply weirdness for weirdness’ sake—it’s an attempt to convey the restless and strange inner-workings of the human imagination. Such a trip can be alternately dark or whimsical, lucid or confusing, openhearted or cynical—like Dylan in the mid-1960s. And yet Hitchcock is never merely imitative—it’s more as though he’s absorbed Dylan’s greatest music directly into his bloodstream.
The Lion’s Lair gig was the final date in a solo jaunt supporting the songwriter’s latest release, Spooked, though you might not have known it—Hitchcock didn’t bother playing anything from the new record for the first 45 minutes. Which is fitting; he’s far too deep in his career to stick to concert convention. Hitchcock has nearly 30 years worth of songs, a wealth of tunes spanning from his days with the Soft Boys to his mainstream flirtations with the Egyptians to his ongoing acoustic troubadour tunes.
He spent this show dipping into this vast catalogue, weaving both reliable warhorses like “Madonna of the Wasps” and “Queen of Eyes” as well as fan-appreciated curios like “Trash” and “Nietzsche’s Way” into a frequently mesmerizing two hour set. Particularly affecting was a dusky reading of “No, I Don’t Remember Guildford”, one of Hitchcock’s best recent songwriting efforts. The song features a haunting, unresolved melody, a perfect fit to the lyrics’ regretful tone. Hitchcock capped off this rendition with a long, winding harmonica solo, conjuring up the ghost of Dylan’s 1966 acoustic sets.
Another stunning moment was the nimble-fingered guitar work that closed a gorgeous version of “Glass Hotel”. Hitchcock’s acoustic guitar sound is unmistakable, drawing equally from English folkies like Martin Carthy and the bell-like tones of Roger McGuinn.
As with most performers in their fifties, Hitchcock can’t quite reach the notes he hit as a younger man, but what he’s lost in vocal range, he’s made up for in warmth. His vocal chords have acquired a pleasing rasp that (again) recalls a certain Mr. Zimmerman. And he’s never seemed happier to be onstage, trading some of his past aloofness for an easy rapport.
As if to prove this newfound fondness for his devoted followers, Hitchcock spent the encore navigating through the crowd, singing and playing guitar sans amplification. The Lion’s Lair—a small club for someone of Hitchcock’s cult hero status—was close to sold out, so this was a tricky maneuver. But Hitchcock pulled it off with witty aplomb, segueing from a hilarious rendition of David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” into Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting”.
The ‘70s seemed to be on the singer’s mind this evening—not only did he play his own “1974” he also (somewhat ill-advisedly) attempted to cover the BeeGees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” More successful was Hitchcock’s take on The Beatles’ “Day In the Life” which captured all of the world-weariness of the original.
Even when he’s imitating, Hitchcock is hardly imitative. He may toy around in the shadows of others, but as tonight’s show reminds us, when he steps into the light he casts a pretty long one himself.