Concert Review: Robyn Hitchcock — Reigning Godfather of Mind Expansion Music

Robyn Hitchcock at City Winery Boston. Photo: Scott McLennan.

The Brit-born iteration of mind-expansion music — from Syd Barrett onward — favors clever wordplay and musical accessibility.

By Scott McLennan

If Robyn Hitchcock did nothing more from the stage of the City Winery on November 24 than deliver his song-by-song instructions to his soundman and make his mercurial merchandise sales pitch, the show would still have been quite entertaining.

Better still, Hitchcock wove his dry, absurdist humor through two impeccable hour-long sets that covered material spanning “Only the Stones Remain” from his days fronting the late-’70s/early-’80s psychedelic-pop outfit The Soft Boys up to the recently released bittersweet ballad “Sunday Never Comes.”

Through all of it, Hitchcock was masterful in marrying beguiling melodies to provocative lyrics. While American-bred psychedelia relies on extended instrumental jamming, the Brit-born iteration of mind-expansion music — from Syd Barrett onward — favors clever wordplay and musical accessibility. Hitchcock is pretty much the reigning godfather of the sound, and his influence can be heard in younger bands, from Dr. Dog to King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.  Recently, Wilco announced that Hitchcock will open for two of its December homecoming shows in Chicago.

Headlining in Boston, Hitchcock played a few signature numbers — the stuff you’ll find on “sounds of the underground” compilations — such as “Madonna of the Wasps,” “Queen Elvis,” and “I Often Dream of Trains,” but did plenty of stretching out. For instance, he sparked interest in the 20-year-old Jewels for Sophia by dusting off that album’s “You’ve Got a Sweet Mouth on You, Baby,” “Mexican God,” and “The Cheese Alarm.” These tunes, played solo on acoustic guitar, covered a number of different vibes, ranging from longing to despair to whimsy.

Hitchcock opened his second set with a batch of songs performed on piano. He hammered out big, chunky chords on “The Man Who Invented Himself,” while evoking John Lennon on a frantically paced “Somewhere Apart.” During the piano portion of the show, Hitchcock unspooled a wild tale ostensibly about how the Velvet Underground ended up living in Boston, which turned into a preface to the equally off-kilter “Ted, Woody and Junior.”

Hitchcock’s instructions to his soundman grew increasingly more bizarre as the night went on (“Make my voice sound like asparagus”). His  stories about his cat Tubby flying a plane to deliver merchandise to fans (and hair gel to Brian Ferry) were not asides; they were integral parts of a show designed to upend all manner of convention in an ever-so-civilized way. Hitchcock’s only nod to showbiz ritual was the peppering in of Boston references as he name-dropped the beloved band Scruffy the Cat and talked about past shows at the Paradise, Jonathan Swift’s, and the Somerville Theater.

The songs, however, never surrendered to the humor. “I’m Only You” perfectly illustrated how well Hitchcock can balance the tenderness of a love song with the unconventional perspective he brings to his writing.

Hitchcock’s partner Emma Swift joined on harmonies for a few numbers at show’s end, adding to the punch in “Virginia Woolf”‘s power-pop homage to literary giants and to the sweetness of the yearning in “Trams of Old London.”

Hitchcock used his encore to pay tribute to two of his influences, starting with a full-throated read of Bob Dylan’s “Dear Landlord.”  And, in a final bit of provocation, Hitchcock sang Lennon’s manifesto “God,” belting out the lines “I don’t believe in Zimmerman” and “I don’t believe in Beatles.” Heresy from an acolyte? Nah, just Hitchcock messing with our heads.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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