“Hang in there until the second half when I play the piano,” Robyn Hitchcock said to the audience the last time I saw him perform in person. “It’s going to be like flying a plane into Elton John.”
Amid the crowd’s laughter, the English singer-songwriter launched into “Take Off Your Bandages”, the Dylanesque B-side from the new seven-inch single he was peddling (“you won’t find it in stores… because it isn’t in them”). The nearly six-minute track is “a psychedelic manifesto” as the info. on bandcamp puts it, “inspired by the activism of the students at Stoneman Douglas High School.”
“What do the young people know / that the mean old men forget?” he sang, his voice sliding, in an almost cartoon-like fashion, from the low end of his range to the high — lifting the mood of the crowd even further every time he did. The room echoed with the sound of hands clapping and feet stomping to the beat.
It was April 2019 and this would be the last show I attended pre-pandemic lockdown. The concert was set at a performing arts center less than 100 yards from my front door. The effort to attend barely qualified as leaving the house at all.
In the time since then, ironically enough, I’ve failed to catch a single virtual concert. So it’s only fitting that my first in the format would be one of Hitchcock’s, just as in-person shows are really ramping up again. “Live from Tubby’s House” is what he’s calling his latest living room concert series, which he resumed in early November following his first tour in 18 months. And Tubby, as Hitchcock fans are already aware, is his one-eyed, blue-haired Scottish Fold cat / social media and video star — and, as we’d find out on this particular night, possessor of fantastical powers over his owner’s music. (The word ‘fold’ in the breed’s name, it’s worth noting, refers to a genetic mutation that causes the cats’ ears to grow towards their face — the perfect companion, you might say, for a musician whose DNA produces an enduringly mutant form of forward-reaching pop music.)
Heading into the event, I wondered what appeal live-streamed shows will hold to fans as things continue to bend toward normalcy. Hitchcock made a convincing case for keeping them around; but then again, he wasn’t approaching live streaming any differently than anything else he does. With a career nearing the 45-year mark and a catalog over 500 songs deep at last count, he rarely repeats himself from performance to performance, mixing his whims with audience requests.
“I’m Only You”, was the only song that this set shared with the previous one, and for good reason: It’s the second track on Hitchcock’s 1985 fourth record Fegmania!, which, on this particular evening, he was performing nearly in its entirety (“only the finest cuts”). You’d be excused if, like me, you weren’t expecting this theme, which was announced via a single blink-and-you’ll-miss-it social media post a couple of days beforehand.
Surprises like these are a good thing about Hitchcock shows. The enjoyment his fans get in connecting the dots of meaning in his stage banter — which typically consists of an improvised-yet-surprisingly-cohesive narrative — is part of what’s made him such an enduring artist. Take, for example, the revelation that resulted from Tubby’s appearance a few songs into the show. As Hitchcock received “Tubs”, as he affectionately calls the cat, onto his lap, a smokestack of emojis — hearts, flames, clapping hands — streamed up from the bottom of the screen. The cat went almost immediately slack and expressionless, folding himself over Hitchcock’s purple, floral shirt-sleeved arm like a sulking child. “Tubby’s still dreaming,” explained Hitchcock to the folks at home “because, if he ever fully wakes up, we would vanish.”
As Hitchcock took a drink of water, Tubby became fussy and started pedaling his dangling back legs. Hitchcock let him down onto the floor. We didn’t vanish. Without missing a beat, Hitchcock returned to his narration of Fegmania!, noting how the record marked the end of the private, “hermetically-sealed British world” he’d been living in up to that point, and the beginning of a more public one that featured regular visits to America. “And that’s it, really. Now my world is just dreamed by Tubby.” The emojis kept coming, and the chat lit up with comments about Tubs and requests for his return.
Fegmania! was Hitchcock’s first album with his band, the Egyptians, which featured Andy Metcalfe and Morris Windsor (two of his former bandmates in the Soft Boys), and Roger Jackson. The decade that followed the record’s release, during which the Egyptians released five more full-lengths, was Hitchcock’s most fertile period as a songwriter — for their final two studio albums (Respect, and Perspex Island) alone, he penned a combined 80 songs. By 1993, Hitchcock was all “written out”, as he put it in an interview at the time; he wanted to slow things down, play fewer shows, make fewer records .(“It’s not as if we haven’t made enough.”). He knew he would still have to rely on touring in the future — to some extent at least — in order to pay the bills.
Hitchcock has successfully slowed his recorded output in the years since then; it’s been almost five years now since his last proper full-length, 2017’s Robyn Hitchcock. So what if, thanks to the pandemic, he has finally found a way to maintain a less-demanding performance routine by supplementing the occasional live show with virtual performances?
Hitchcock seemed to be doing alright from a business standpoint on this particular evening. The concert was available to watch for 48 hours after it aired (via the Mandolin streaming platform), which helped to increase both online attendance and merchandise sales. The replay option, with the chat and emojis from the real-time event wiped clean, offered attendees an opportunity to engage in a fresh dialogue. “Grooving on the replay,” one person wrote in the chatbox. While another praised the customer service: “ordered [“The Man with the Lightbulb Head” t-shirt] last night & already got email it’s shipped!” Individual audience members were also thanked, later in the show, for their contributions to the “Fancy Feast” fund he joked, while he attempted — with even less success — to wrangle Tubby’s brother, Ringo, for the camera.
Indeed, everyone with whom Tubby shares his East Nashville home, both animate and inanimate, made appearances during the event. The next of these was Hitchcock’s wife, Australian singer Emma Swift — who was “summoned” to the “stage” after the quietly devastating “My Wife and My Dead Wife”, in which Hitchcock changed a key lyric in the song to imply that Tubby was the song’s narrator / husband. The track — the fourth number on Fegmania! — stands among Hitchcock’s best, striking the perfect balance between comedic and poignant, even with Hitchcock’s ad-libbing.
From off-screen, Swift was heard instructing Hitchcock on how to arrange the chairs so they would both fit in the frame. Along with “Tubby’s dream”, her banter was part of the evening’s running gags. She appeared, grinning and clutching a stuffed lobster named Perry, and took a seat next to her husband in front of their knick-knack-stuffed bookshelf.
“Hello Groovers,” the cat-eyed Swift said to the camera, waving the plush crustacean. “The current wife in the house. How y’all doing? I brought someone who’s more likely to stick around than me.”
She’d been called up from “the tech shadows”, as she put it, to sing “Goodnight I Say”. The song began with a gently-picked, spiraling acoustic arrangement from Hitchcock, a riff on the album version’s twinkling synth and scraped string intro. As he nodded along to his picking rhythm, he repeatedly swung a silver wave of his hair from out of his eyes. Swift, meanwhile, added a tender, windblown layer to the melody — hinged on the repeated title phrase — during the chorus, when it kicked into a more insistent gear.
“But it’s not goodnight,” she reminded us at home when the song ended. “It’s not even halfway through the set yet.” As the couple exchanged quips, Swift reminded Hitchcock that, contrary to his commentary, “Heaven” would not be the next song in the set. (“Heaven”, the album closer, appeared five songs later.)
“You’re right,” Hitchcock admitted. “It’s the confusion that continues.”
Swift didn’t play the part of the straight (wo)man in their routine, per se, but straight enough to keep things moving and to provide the occasional punchline fodder. At 90 minutes, this remote concert was an hour shorter than the live show in 2019.
Meanwhile, back at my house, my partner’s attention wandered from her homework to the dog lying upside between us, demanding to have its belly rubbed — and to Hitchcock’s strange world of song, which she was unfamiliar with and, to my surprise, found greatly amusing. “He’s basically the Dylan of the indie world,” I said, borrowing an oft-used analogy to help explain where he stood in the scheme of things.
“But with a better voice, obviously,” she added with a smile.
It was pure comfort watching a real-time gig from our bed, especially one as intimate and off-the-cuff as this one. So why had I dodged online shows for so long? My reasons aren’t unique; they’re a combination of the same feelings everyone’s been battling this past year and a half. I was skeptical, unmotivated, Zoomed out — and knowing that Zoom was the only option there was for live shows only made it a more depressing prospect.
Now, while in-person touring works to re-establish its flow, virtual gigs like this one will play an important role to viewers like me. Online concerts help fans find the motivation to rebuild their old show-going routines. Plus, given that the last four in-person shows that I bought tickets for were canceled, virtual shows, especially those with a replay option, are a lot easier to plan around.
During this transitional period between lockdown and in-person mingling, virtual gigs are sure to be helpful to touring musicians who are regaining their footing, or, like Hitchcock, wanting to maintain a more manageable pace. With the increased competition for in-person bookings (due to industry backup), and fewer venue options (due to pandemic-related closings), it’s harder than ever to book tours right now. And, of course, financial-, attendance- and safety-related concerns are massively reduced in the online format. Perhaps the most important reason of all for “attending” remote concerts is that the online format allows artists a more personal and comfortable experience than ever before. This suits Hitchcock’s approach particularly well.
But for heaven’s sake, Hitchcock, true to form, seemed to argue when he stopped mid-chord on “The Man with the Lightbulb Head”, just don’t take the format too seriously. “Daddy it’s you,” he said in a helium-high voice during the song’s spoken break, in which the titular character’s identity was revealed. After indulging himself in a series of “ahh’s” as he sought the right key for the father’s voice, he cued Swift to hold Perry the lobster in front of his face.
As she jiggled the stuffed animal to signal that it was speaking, Hitchcock flubbed his lips with his index finger and spoke in his most ridiculously monstrous voice: “You’re too late. I’ve come to turn you on. Huhahaha!” (I know, it made me a little uncomfortable too.) As Hitchcock reared up and dove into the chorus, Swift turned wide-eyed and beet red with embarrassment, just barely keeping it together.
“I love the love you give, Perry,” she told him at the end of the concert, “Which is good because he [the lobster’ might be your next wife. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go find my dignity, which I left somewhere off-screen.”
“Love on ya darlings,” Hitchcock said before signing off. “Please tune in next week… for whatever we do next week. And get home safely, especially if you’re already at home.”
Good thing for Elton John there wasn’t a second set.