Robyn Hitchcock Brings the Quietly Penetrating Eye Back to the City Where He Made It
Robyn Hitchcock at Slim's last night.
Nov. 17, 2011
Better than: New Kids on the Block performing their No. 1 British album, Step By Step in its entirety.
Robyn Hitchcock recorded Eye in San Francisco more than 20 years ago, and last night he returned to perform the entire album live at Slim's -- but with no lack of new material. While most legacy acts touring to perform classic albums from their back catalog do so because they haven't written a compelling new album in decades, Hitchcock has steadily released many volumes of surreal, hyper-literate pop and toured extensively to support them. He chose to revisit an old album for one night, in the city that originally nurtured it, perhaps for the sake of artistic diversity. And Eye is a work of understated, acoustic brilliance -- quite a departure from Hitchcock's last record, Propellor Time, which uses a full band to create a four-on-the-floor swagger. But regardless of Hitchcock's reasons for returning to an old album during a creative high-point in his career, last night's results were mesmerizing.
Hitchcock's outfit for the evening was high-contrast. He sported a black-and-white patterned shirt, black glasses, and white hair, which matched the subject matter of his songs. With cleverness and grace, his lyrics juxtaposed beauty and violence, insects and blood, throughout the entire set. Ever the contrarian, before Hitchcock began the first song he told the crowd, "I don't mind if you smoke, as long as it's not pot."
Early in the set arrived "Queen Elvis." His head gestured wildly and his eyes blinked furiously as he commanded the audience's attention with his slow vocal delivery. "Flesh Cartoons" and "Executioner" both followed closely with their galloping cadence and cryptic lyrics. The surreal quality of his lyrics was particularly vivid on these tracks. When he confided in the audience, "I know how Judas felt, but he got paid" or "here's a relationship with a gun to its head," his words were made even more gripping by the slow-burning tension he cultivated with bare, dynamic guitar playing.
"Clean Steve" was probably the most up-beat tune performed last night. But with Robyn Hitchcock, the good times are quickly bloodied up with a blunt object, and he reverted back to some of the more overtly miserable songs on Eye. As if compensating for the depressive qualities of "Agony of Pleasure" and "Glass Hotel," Hitchcock used this time in the set to demonstrate his understated guitar virtuosity. The tempo became erratic as he began an instrumental passage, causing concertgoers to hush and wonder if he had made a mistake. No, the odd timing utilized during his guitar solos was calculated, and succeeded in drawing the listener's attention back to the stage, to Hitchcock's deceptively simple and startlingly original technique.
The singer's banter with the audience reinforced the mystique created by his lyrics. What would begin as casual reminiscing about the time when he originally recorded Eye inevitably became a free-associative, spoken poem that he seemed to spontaneously improvise. Gazing stoically onward, he ruminated on God, art, and his own life, as if he was suddenly possessed by enough inspiration to write his next record.
Least likely person for Robyn Hitchcock to name-check, in the least likely context: "Some people tell me this song is about oral sex and, I mean, that's an anagram for Axl Rose."
By the way: Two crucial albums by Robyn Hitchcock's first band, The Soft Boys, have been recently reissued by Yep Roc Records after being out of print for years.
Chinese Water Python
Raining Twilight Coast
Agony of Pleasure
The Devil's Coachman
One Long Pair of Eyes
Madonna of the Wasps