Robyn Hitchcock, folk singer with flair

  • Robyn Hitchcock Robyn Hitchcock

Thursday, April 12, 2018

It feels like a celebration whenever Robyn Hitchcock comes back to Northampton. (To my knowledge he hasn’t yet been awarded a key to the city, but someone should make that happen for next time.)

The London-born (but now Nashville-residing) singer/songwriter made his first of many Northampton appearances in 1990 at The Iron Horse, and he returned to the cozy venue this past Tuesday night for another show, the room so packed that fans stood in back by the bar and sat in extra chairs at the side of the stage.

Hitchcock was in rare form, both with the generous amount of songs (22 in all, two full sets) and with the inspired improvised banter between the music. I haven’t seen him hit such animated Monty Python-esque heights since his 1989 show at the Blue Wall at UMass. 

Hitchcock has called himself a folksinger, and while he’s indeed inspired by the majesty of a simple G chord on an acoustic guitar, your average folk singer doesn’t write lyrics like “A space between is not a final answer / I’ll never ever be a dancer / So get me fish eggs and a violin / I’m gonna burn your bongos tonight / And let Graham have a chance / ’Cause no one ever lets him dance / And all the see-through things are crawling from the sea.”

On my way to the show, driving past Holyoke on Interstate 91, moving through a temporary downpour that left rainbows shimmering in the mist between cars, I heard Hitchcock on 93.9 The River, chatting with deejay Joan Holliday about one of his fave songs (Roxy Music’s “Avalon”). The two sounded like warm old friends, and Hitchcock dropped two promising bits of info about the night’s gig to come: he was getting back into playing piano, and he’d be fulfilling lots of song requests he’d received from fans online.

The resulting concert was a satisfying mix of his MTV-era highlights, melancholy deep cuts, some of his most playful songs, raw emotion while at The Iron Horse’s piano, and one song from his latest self-titled album (the upbeat “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox”).

Hitchcock began the night seated at the grand to play “Nocturne,” the evocative piano instrumental that also opened up his 1984 album “I Often Dream of Trains.” As the minor key miniature — and ensuing applause — died down, he said hello to the crowd in a playfully moody register: “Great to be here at twilight. That’s when my stuff occurs.”

He followed up with two more piano tunes, the punchy Lennon-esque stomp “Somewhere Apart” and the beautiful and haunting “Flavour of Night,” which has one of his most oddly tender and catchy choruses: “You, yeah, you / with your ice cream hands / you, yeah, you / are my friend.”

“Balloon Man” and “So You Think You’re In Love,” Hitchcock’s biggest songs in the U.S. thanks to alternative-minded airwaves in the ’80s and ’90s, were as catchy as ever in 2018, and I couldn’t stifle the urge to harmonize (quietly). 

Hitchcock played so many requests, he jovially told the audience, “You’re flying the plane yourselves!”

He ran into a fan couple at a local eatery earlier in the day, a meeting he mentioned during his introduction to “I Often Dream of Trains”: “I never dreamed when I wrote this song that anyone would request it, let alone in a Chinese restaurant.”

“Victorian Squid” was one of two songs Hitchcock played from his 1995 rarities collection “You & Oblivion” (co-produced by IHEG’s own Jim Neill, a lifetime fan who was in attendance). It was a cheerfully weird highlight of the night, with a melody so simple and catchy it’s a kind of nursery rhyme — but with lyrics about H.G. Wells, cocoa, and, as always, eggs.

“Cathedral” was a ballad built on hypnotic arpeggios, Hitchcock forcefully plucking the the strings, snapping them against the wooden body of the guitar.

And combining the off-kilter and the beautiful was the mesmerizing “Raymond Chandler Evening,” with its memorable bridge, “There’s a body on the railings / that I can’t identify / and I’d like to reassure you / but I’m not that kind of guy.”

Hitchcock continued his tradition of collaborating on the fly with house sound engineer Jim Frogameni to add special effects to his voice and guitar, depending on the vibe of the song — most impressively on “I’m Only You,” where Frogameni added disorienting digital delay to the instrument during the ending, turning simple notes into a pulsing and swirling psychedelic cyclone.

Hitchcock played an encore of five songs (without going through the motions of marching off the stage and back on again), starting with a trio of covers from his songwriting heroes, Syd Barrett (“Wined and Dined”), Bob Dylan (“Ring Them Bells”) and John Lennon (“Isolation”), the latter two containing some of his most impassioned singing of the whole evening. He then brought up his partner Emma Swift for some show-ending harmonizing on two of his own tunes, “Glass Hotel” and “Queen Elvis,” songs he’d played at that very first Iron Horse show, 28 years ago.