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Lisa Torem watches ex-Soft boys frontman Robyn Hitchcock play an entertaining, often hilarious set at Space in Evanston, Illinois
If you'd spent three and a half decades songwriting, performing and recording and had a catalogue of 500 plus songs, which songs would you include on your Sunday set list? And what if those years included an obsession with early Pink Floyd vocalist/songwriter Syd Barrett and woozy stints with the Soft Boys, the Egyptians and Venus 3, followed by a thriving solo career?
When you're the seasoned Robyn Hitchcock, whose ability to wax poetic and weave wry, politically incorrect monologues between songs without losing momentum seems second nature, it almost doesn't matter. During this 2015 tour, part of the agenda, of course, was to celebrate his twentieth solo album, 'The Man Upstairs', and he made sure to include a few endearing duets with his opening act, Australian born chanteuse Emily Swift, whose country-tinged soprano brought out the more sanguine elements of Hitchcock's classic folk balladry.
The set was satisfying in that it drew from important landmarks in Hitchcock's career. Also, as anticipated, Hitchcock made us laugh. The British songwriter's lyrical wit was immediately displayed in the undisputedly satirical 'Don't Talk to Me about Gene Hackman' and 'The Cheese Alarm'. In the former, he used the American actor's first name to create a childlike chant, a trick that attracted full attention straight away. In the latter, he revved up the tempo and, to the sound person, mocked, "Just put a little Art Garfunkel on my voice."
It would be the first of several times that he'd banter with the sound person, and the dialogue paid off, as one of the songs was enhanced with a kind of mind-altering, psychedelic surround sound effect.
From the vault songs, such as 'Madonna of the Wasps' included nostalgic insights -"I wonder where she lost me," accompanied by a dreamy riff. The intricate finger picking provided a warm background for the imagery and Hitchcock seemed to get marvelously lost in the reverie, swooning his syllables and making his six-string sound like an orchestra.
Songs like 'Chinese Bones' from the Egyptian era still fascinate, even if you're already familiar with the haunting overtones and complex arrangements. Although the theme advances, the hook, "as the light shines through your Chinese bones," can get caught in your throat. Hitchcock used his higher register, which made the words convey that much more urgency.
Hitchcock's audiences can often be found chasing him from concert to concert. In fact, the man next to me said that he'd be catching the songwriter twice more over the weeks, knowing that the set list would be modified and confident that each set would entail a new back-story or surprise.
New songs, 'Trouble in Your Blood'and the wildly romantic 'San Francisco Patrol', appeared mid set. These arrangements spawned a hush in the crowded, standing room only venue, Space, as it’s always a bit of a rush to hear what new mindsets Hitchcock conjures up.
Several of the songs were enhanced by the harmonies of Emma Swift and another vocalist introduced simply as "Yvonne", whom Hitchcock invited up directly from the stage, after apologising for playing live songs that had been more developed in the studio.
"Come and join us on this dark island of sound," he stated. And, like Robyn, she traipsed her way through the crowded room from a stage door in the back. Yvonne wore black and echoed rhythms with her bright, red tambourine. And, Robyn, wearing a black, Western-style cowboy shirt embossed with white embroidery, held his own; at one point, tooting out jagged counterpoint on his blues harp.
When the time came for an encore, Hitchcock, with a nonchalant wave of the hand and not much ceremony, stated: "Here's a flurry of things in 'C'". He announced that he and Swift would be releasing an EP in the near future. The encore included songs by Lou Reed and the Everly Brothers, which was good material for the voices at hand, but some of the fans were hoping he'd squeeze in some more originals. But there's always the next town away, where you'd be sure to catch some more of those.
Photographs by Philamonjaro