One of England’s most enduring songwriters, approaching his sixty-seventh birthday, a polkadot-shirted Robyn Hitchcock steps up for a solo performance at the Drygate Brewery in the city’s east end, as part of Glasgow’s folk and roots festival, Celtic Connections. It’s the kind of smaller, intimate venue that Glasgow excels at, gathering 200-odd people tonight, of a wide age-range, maybe not-unexpectedly weighted towards the more time-served, and male.
With a career rooted in the mid-1970’s, and twenty-one albums to the good, Hitchcock has an extensive roster of songs to draw on any night, but the major part of this performance is culled from his eponymous album from 2017. While his recorded arrangements are generally fully-worked up, with a band (originally The Soft Boys, then The Egyptians and more recently Venus 3 and a 2019 collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge), those familiar with his work might need to adjust to the raw, more skeletal sound of solo voice and acoustic accompaniment.
However, as often with this set-up, the heart of the songs is brought to the fore, and a rather bruised heart it is, with dark and world-weary meditations on life taking left-turns at unexpected angles, giving vent to Hitchcock’s quite surreal poetic tendencies, often in rhyming couplets that recall another band-member turned solo performer, Chris Difford. His Syd Barrett-like voice is deceptively youthful, his playing assured, and all is sung from memory. Reminders are there of other English doyens from pop-psychedia, the Kinks, the Floyd, maybe a little Nick Lowe, and certainly Roy Harper.
Breezy, if dizzyingly eclectic, inter-song chat comprises seemingly half of the set, with an anecdote about playing a long-gone Paisley club, where the tables were stacked up to the ceiling by punters keen to scale them to gain an aerial view. On occasion he launches into absurd Izzard-esque surreal excursions, peppered with hilarious detail, promising for example that his Nashville-based cat, Tubby, will overfly your duckpond in his Tiger Moth biplane and drop your order of Hitchcock vinyl into a waiting duck’s beak, who in turn will vouchsafe it to you, all within about two weeks of receipt of your order. When at one point he promises to try to escape an increasingly xenophobic England by applying for Scottish citizenship, he elicits sympathetic cheers.
This strong suit of audience rapport is augmented by repeated banter with his sound-man, ‘Gregor’, to whom he supplies increasingly-intricate instructions, including to make his voice sound like a dozen people – but with each particular person named and dated – also to ‘make my guitar sound good’, and latterly to ‘do something about my hair’.
But the bobbins patter and the wryly dark lyrics belies an affecting quality to some of his more personal songs, foregrounded in ‘Raymond and the Wires’, which describes a boyhood trolley-bus ride with his typically-distant author father, and his imaginative life provides plenty of raw material for some very mature song-craft, borne-out by having been sung by such A-listers as Bryan Ferry. And by closing with The Soft Boys’ hit-that-never-was, I Want to Destroy You, dedicated to the world’s Mussolinis and Farages, he reminds us that impudent cheek can always be catchy.
Glasgow G4 0UT
Celtic Connections continues until 2nd February.