Sunday, November 04, 2007

Robyn Hitchcock gets a life


Robyn Hitchcock
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
I'm not the rabid young Robyn Hitchcock fan I used to be, that's for sure. He's put out two whole albums I don't have yet (never mind one won't be in the stores until next week, but that's beside the point), and he played in Chicago and Madison this weekend, and all I did was see him right here in Milwaukee. Naw, in the past 25 years I've -- as my other hero William Shatner would say -- gotten a life.

But then again, Hitchcock isn't the rabid young psychodelic musicual he used to be, but he too has, in a sense, grown up and gotten a life. And so a Hitchcock tour isn't so much a proving ground than truly a tour -- stopping by old haunts and checking in with the local friends, and introducing his latest friends of his own. That's how Friday night at Shank Hall felt.

The most recent of these finds was opener Sean Nelson, who later provided harmonies for Hitchcock's set. He had a lovely droll sense of humor and can write great little poignant songs that you would normally expect to hear from a guitarist in a coffeehouse -- except he accompanied himself on piano. He had a charming, self-effacing introduction to many of his songs, which unfortunately wore thin after awhile. He'd said that this attitude wasn't an act, but it's kind of hard to believe he's been on the road with Robyn Hitchcock, singing well crafted songs like this, and still hadn't worked up some measure of self-confidence. As such, his 30 minute set was just long enough before I could get sick of him, which I was in danger of doing.

Hitchcock took the stage and was simply wonderful, proving my earlier writing that he could read the phone book and i'd be happy. He had an acoustic guitar and an electric, but it was clear he hadn't planned on doing too much with the electric. I actually like when he plays solo electric -- he seems to get more ambitious and it accents his style nicely. He'd broken a string on his acoustic early in the set, and whoever was changing it for him took forEVER -- what, was the guy building an entire new guitar for him or what? Then, after two songs, it's still not ready, so Hitchcock grabs his electric and plays a few tunes from that. Then, the acoustic is finally "ready" -- b ut not quite. After all this time, the tech hasn't even tuned the damn thing.

For anybody else, this would have been an annoying disaster that might even result in a "We're going to take a short intermission and be right back" but not Robyn Hitchcock. Instead, the onstage tuning -- normally a nuisance for an audience -- became fodder for one of his many surreal and absurd monolouges. I've often wondered if Hitchcock's stories are rehearsed, because they sound so off the cuff. But this one -- which had to have been on the spot -- had the same metre, the same flow, as any of his other tomes, and it was at that point I realized (or was simply reminded) we're dealing with a verbal genius, a man who can put together those kinds of sentences which on the surface sound like the random explosions of a man gone insane, but actually are lucid, brilliant observations that make more sense than anything else going on in the planet. But its not just his words, it's his delivery and phrasing, which is why I still maintain he could read the phone book and it would be entertaining, if not enlightening.

The set was full of songs from those last two albums I don't have, but they felt like old songs anyway, since his songwriting style really hasn't changed much. It's still good psychedelic folk, lots of guitar arpeggios, chord progressions that shift from triumphant to brooding. It doesn't matter if he's singing or talking: he speaks musically, and he sings narratively. There's not much more i can say: I'm a fan, and the man can do no wrong by me. Robyn Hitchcock both has and gives a great life, and that's the most we can ask of any artist.

Afterwards, he and Nelson were gracious with fans, including myself, and actually allowed photos with silly little fans like me. I had nothing for him to autograph except my ticket stubs, and in my gushing, I think I left them there. I've already had my copy of Underwater Moonlight autographed by him, so I don't need more. He did seem more approachable than he has in years past, and it seemed like as good a time as any for both me and my friend Annie to thank him, simply for writing songs that gave us such intellegent joy. Ten years ago, I would have felt too self-consciously hip to ask "Would you pose for a picture with me," now it's a fun little request of an artist who might just start to be realizing the impact he's had on some people's lives, and it was a nice moment for me.

Afterwards, after promising me that I can play through The Amplifier That Robyn Hitchcock Played through, my bass player Miles (who again supplied the infamous Fender Twin Reverb that has also been used by Jonathan Richman) met Annie, Brian, Annette, Mark and other hardcore Robyn fans for a nightcap at the Groove on the south side over a beer to gush, talk about the seventeen thousand other times we've seen Hitchcock, and to speculate about when we'll see him again, what friends he'll bring with him, and what stories he'll tell. When you're among friends, the conversation happens so easily. Maybe that's Robyn Hitchcock's true secret.