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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
The Union Chapel, Islington, London, February 12th 2009
It’s almost Spring, or so it seems. From snow to sunshine. Shining daffodils on the kitchen table. And outside my window at night the persistent twittering of insomniac birds. What are they saying? Are they discussing the meaning of life or simply swapping self-absorbed semaphore at a volume that others can’t escape? I can’t really say and frankly don’t care. I’m contemplating, full of remorse. Well, that might be a slight overstatement, but not for the first time I have to admit that here’s an artist who has passed me by for many years, simply a name on a shelf-divider or a listings page. On the basis of this performance, I can confirm that this is something I deeply regret. Daffodils
We saw Robyn Hitchcock deliver an uncertain and unremarkable contribution to last year’s Rogues Gallery show, but something sparked my curiosity. Was it the garish shirt, the almost-Nick Lowe haircut, or the easy-hanging Stratocaster? I’m not sure which, but either way we jumped at these tickets, even if it did mean yet another trek across snowbound London and another visit (two within a week) to the you-know-where for a plateful of you-know-what, and a nice cup of tea. The lovely yet chilly Union Chapel is maybe only about two-thirds full, but yet again it’s clear that we’ve come to a church that’s full of believers, with high expectations of some sort of spiritual enlightenment.
It began with Hitchcock’s shirt, black and white spots that almost exactly matched the design on his Buddy Guy Stratocaster.
Robyn Hitchcock
The slight sense of disorientation that this caused as the guitar moved was nothing compared with the effect of Hitchcock’s spoken contributions, delivered in the theatrical style of an Edwardian actor-manager. Occasionally cleverly-constructed song introductions, sometimes simply surreal observation. Some of it just twitter. It polarised the audience. Some looked bewildered, if not a tad embarrassed. Others – the majority, I’m glad to say - laughed. Frantically. At one point, during a particularly lengthy and obtuse introduction to the wonderful ‘NASA clapping’ the Photographer was in tears, something normally only achieved by comedian Ken Dodd at his bizarre best. It demanded huge powers of concentration just to keep up with Hitchcock’s musings, let alone the fifteen or so songs, all pretty strong material, including a few from his new album Goodnight Oslo, recorded with his sometime band the Venus 3 (featuring, it is mandatory to note, REM guitarist Peter Buck). If you don’t know, Hitchcock has been recording since 1976, first with The Soft Boys, then, in between solo work, with the Egyptians and more latterly the Venus 3. He’s recorded more albums and accumulated more re-releases and retrospective box sets as he’s moved record company, than most of us have eaten, well, plates of fish and chips. So it’s hard to know where to start, although Goodnight Oslo certainly won’t disappoint.
Tonight’s band features long-time collaborator Paul Noble on bass, Rob Ellis on drums and Jenny Adejayan on cello. Hitchcock divided his time between acoustic and electric guitars. On the latter he achieves, with the aid of an array of pedals and a quite unusual technique, a distinctive droning tone that fits marvellously with the cello to produce a sound that sits somewhere in time and texture between the Beatles’ Revolver and Sergeant Pepper.
It’s slightly psychedelic, and infused with a very attuned late sixties pop sensibility. At its most extreme, it falls into the infectious pop-pastiche of ‘Saturday Groovers’ from the new album. But the material is so diverse in tone and content that the sound never becomes repetitive or overbearing. As a writer Hitchcock falls into that school often dubbed, and almost dismissed, as ‘English eccentric’, a phrase that tends to devalue. He’s a great fan of Syd Barrett (they even share a discussion group, and he recently recorded a tribute gig to Barrett in a London pub) but if you listen carefully you can see that he draws his influences far more widely than from one person. And specific song titles speak for themselves and for the tone of the evening: ‘I’ve got the hots’, ‘Sinister but she was happy’, ‘You and oblivion’, ‘The museum of sex,’ ‘Sounds great when you’re dead’. Hitchcock ended with the title track from the new album, derived from a few days that he and Maurice Windsor (drummer with the Soft Boys) spent in Oslo twenty years ago under the influence of Norwegian amphetamines, an experience from which, he tells us, he has yet to fully emerge. Now that might explain something.
It’s a fantastic and enlightening show, in every sense, evidenced by the excited chatter of the audience as they leave. I can only urge you to go and see Mr Hitchcock if you get the chance – he’ll be touring the States with the Venus 3 in April - and maybe dip your toes into his extensive discography, which is what I’ve been doing. And as we left the Union Chapel it’s snowing again, putting Spring on hold for few more weeks, but I know that somewhere in the distance those birds will still be twittering. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)
Listen: Robyn Hitchcock on MySpace

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