On Sunday, June 5, 2016 I was back at my favorite venue, Largo at the Coronet, to finally see Robyn Hitchcock in concert. I just missed out on seeing him at a 21+ venue that was down the street from where I lived, right before I turned 21. The last few times he has played at Largo I have had conflicts or the tickets sold out before I purchased one. Not this time though and I was ready for a night of music and strangeness that only Robyn could provide. Everything about Robyn is distinctive: from the immediately recognizable tone of his singing voice to the imaginative, mystifying, quirky, thought-provoking, and sometimes sentimental lyrics of his songs, to his flowing guitar-picking, and his often multi-colored patterned or dotted shirts. He has a style all his own and carries it comfortably.
Opening for Robyn was Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift, who moved to Nashville a couple of years ago because, in her words, she “likes country music.” She played a beautiful guitar with a mother-of-pearl neck and small rectangles of wood inserted for fret markers. She was backed by the versatile Luther Russell on lead guitar (a Gibson SG). Luther recently released an album with Big Star band member Jody Stephens under the name Those Pretty Wrongs. Emma fits in the Americana genre or perhaps old school country, with a sound at times reminiscent of Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn.
Emma mostly played songs from her debut self-titled album, beginning with the aptly named “Bittersweet” (she could be self-describing her style — a sweet voice and music singing sad, introspective lyrics) followed by “Woodland Street.” Next she faithfully covered the Gram Parsons song, “Brass Buttons.” She spoke to the audience after this song, noting, “I pride myself on being a professional miserablist [sic] — and we’re just going to keep on getting sad.” There followed a song of regret for “James,” which began with the lyric, “James, I didn’t mean to kiss you, something in the night threw my reason to the wind.” Poor James. I’m a sucker for songs using seasons as a metaphor for a longer span of time or age and so appreciated the lyric writing on Emma’s next tune, “Seasons.”
For Emma’s final song she invited Robyn to join her on stage, announcing him by proclaiming, “Make way for the marvelous and most likely polka-dotted, Robyn Hitchcock!” Yes indeed, he was wearing a polka-dotted shirt. The pair sang a despairing Rowland S. Howard song called “Shivers,” which opens with the line “I’ve been contemplating suicide, but it really doesn’t suit my style.” Their voices blended together well in harmony, with Emma’s light clear tones balancing out Robyn’s resonant lines. Nice guitar soloing by Luther during this final number in Emma’s set.
Robyn began his set with a couple songs from his days with the Soft Boys, playing “I Got the Hots” and “Tonight” from Underwater Moonlight. On concluding the latter song, he remarked, “Out goes the first of many demons, shrieking off into the dust.” Feeling cathartic, Robyn? Then he commented on how he chooses songs for his shows, “You tend to assemble a collage of your memories. You tend to play the highlights.” He indicated that he would play, “A collection of songs of mine that I like (pause) and remember!”
Before beginning “52 Stations” from his album Groovy Decay, he asked the sound booth to make his guitar sound like a 12-string. It is interesting which lyrics jump out from songs that one is not already familiar with. From this song it was, “There’s a few good reasons why you’re not with me.” Next he played “Balloon Man” from Globe of Frogs, surprising my friend who was at the show. Sometimes you expect to hear the fan favorites, but sometimes artists get tired of playing them (à la Radiohead with “Creep“) and they get removed from the rotation. During the song he made an aside to the audience, “You know I wrote this for The Bangles? I follow Susanna on Twitter.” (Me too.) He prefaced the odd song “Trilobite” by noting, “One of the interesting things about us is that we give names to things that have been gone long before we are born.” He continued on about the trilobite and Elton John, who is referenced in the song, which can be found on the album Mossy Liquor: Outtakes and Prototypes. This song is a fine example of what I mean when I refer to the strangeness of Robyn’s lyrics. This feels more like a stream of consciousness song or perhaps was built on the rhythm of the sound of the words. It sounds like something that Dr. Seuss would have sung if he were an indie rock singer and not a children’s author.
Once again he called up to Alec in the sound booth, “Alec, can you make this sound like it’s fun? Maybe some echo on the mic — guitar like it’s in a band produced by Tony Visconti.” We were propelled into the poptastic portion of the evening as he launched into “Saturday Groovers” from his album Goodnight Oslo with The Venus 3, followed by “Glass Hotel” from Eye. Was Robyn listening to The Beatles song “Savoy Truffle” when he was inspired to write “The Cheese Alarm?” Using cheese instead of candy as the delivery mechanism, it echos the lyrical form and sentiment of the Harrison-penned classic and was a popular song choice with the Largo crowd.
Robyn then played one recorded with the Egyptians, “Raymond Chandler Evening” from Element of Light. He introduced the song by noting it had been “written about L.A.” before he’d been here. He was joined on violin by Paz Lenchantin. She suitable accompanied his songs, adding the perfect amount of flavor without overpowering the sauce. Next he introduced a song I am not familiar with called “Light Blue Afternoon,” maybe because it was from a Norwegian-only release Tromsø Kaptein. Lyrics of the song included, “Just a speck in the mirror on a light blue afternoon, and that speck is getting bigger. It’ll be a big speck soon, on a light blue afternoon. It’s been coming all your life and there’s no derailing destiny.” That final line was another that caught my imagination so much that I’ve used it for the title of this post.
The concert energy level then kicked up a notch as Jon Brion appeared on the stage. They played a cover of the Jimi Hendrix song “The Wind Cries Mary,” which Robyn previously recorded for his album Shadow Cat. Paz exited and vocalist Jessica Pratt entered, as Robyn parsed some notes to Jon on the song he was about to play, “It’s in E…a lot of vamping about in B.” Then they launched into “This Could Be the Day” from I Often Dream of Trains. Emma Swift joined them on harmony for a beautiful rendition of another song off the same album, the nostalgic “Trams of Old London.” I was quite struck by their rendition of the song “Linctus House” (from Eye) and was feeling a strong affinity with the lyrics. During the song, Jon was doing some interesting percussive rhythm on the body of the piano and with his microphone. That guy can turn anything into music.
For the next song, another one recorded with the Egyptians, “Ride” from Perspex Island, Paz came back on stage to provide more support on the violin. One line that stood out during the song, “But if you don’t love yourself, what’s the use of someone else, loving you?” I believe Jon was off stage for this song. After the song, Robyn remarked, “There’s two kinds of people: living people and dead people, and you have the choice to be both.” Hmm. Then Robyn played a song that I myself have learned on guitar and that I was hoping to hear that night — “I Often Dream of Trains” from the album of the same title. Having lived in the UK for a few years and ridden the railways there, this was a special moment for me. I’ve even been on a train to Reading, and I still do have dreams of them, though perhaps not often. Jon returned to the stage to embellish the end of this song with his pretty piano playing.
With Jon back on stage it was a great opportunity for Robyn to play his cover of Roxy Music’s song “To Turn You On” and have some awesome piano accompaniment. The original version of the song is from their album Avalon and Robyn’s version is on his most recent album The Man Upstairs. Such a lovely, elegant interpretation of this song. They played another cover next, a thoughtful version of The Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says.” Before playing the final song, Robyn had the best quote of the night, “Very few venues, namely zero, have Jon Brion as an app.” Well, zero other venues have regular access to this genius of music, Largo is the place to get your Jon Brion fix (his next show is Friday, June 24). This is part of what makes Largo one of the best places to see live music, you never know who is going to join in a show (any number of musicians or comedians who regularly play at Largo might appear), and so many of the performances are one of a kind. To close the evening, all the musicians that had played earlier returned to the stage to perform a voluminous “Olé! Tarantula,” taken from the album of the same name, which was recorded with the Venus 3.
Emma and Robyn both headed to the lobby after the show to sell their latest albums, sign autographs, and chat with fans. Some of us were even lucky enough to get photos with Robyn. I value whenever an artist takes a moment to greet the fans and I thank Emma and Robyn for doing so that night. It might be just a few minutes of their time, but for me it is like finally completing a puzzle that has been missing a piece. It also is a nice opportunity to compliment and share your appreciation for their work and feel like it is a little bit more of a reciprocal relationship rather than a one-way street. Of course some artists are easier to talk to than others. I found both Emma and Robyn to both be easily approachable and sincere. It was a perfect end to a thoroughly satisfying night of music that I had waited so long to experience.