I once bought a used Starbucks compilation CD called Senses Working Overtime. Track 17 of that compilation was “Trams of Old London” from Robyn Hitchcock’s 1984 album, I Often Dream of Trains. I’d been a fan of the Soft Boys for years, but had never bothered with Robyn’s solo releases. I thought “Trams of Old London” was a great song, so I looked around to see if I could find a copy of the original album. It was out-of-print, so I engaged in a bit of dubious downloading to acquire a copy. It was good stuff. Before I knew what was going on, I was a Robyn Hitchcock fan.
When I heard he was coming to Newport to play a solo show, I rushed out and bought my advance ticket. I also rushed out and bought a few Robyn Hitchcock solo albums to better prepare for the show. I’ve become slightly jaded with concerts, but I found myself very excited about this one. I literally counted down the days on my calender.
I got down to the Southgate House a few minutes before Sean Nelson began his opening set. I’d never heard of Sean Nelson until last night, but I must admit that I was impressed with his performance. Any singer who opens his set with “This Is Where I Belong” by the Kinks is alright in my book (that’s not just a phrase–I really have a book). He played a couple other covers during his performance, but most of his set was made up of originals. They were all quality songs, but I think I enjoyed “Exile on Baker Street” and “They’re Kicking Me Out of the Band” the most.
After a brief intermission, Robyn Hitchcock came out and took the stage. It was him, his hideous purple outfit, and an acoustic guitar. He started in on a rambling monologue about the sexiness of Bill Clinton. Now I know that Robyn Hitchcock has a reputation for being something of an eccentric, but I think some of his monologues may have gone beyond the realm of the eccentric and into the land of the flat-out crazy. He told long, detailed stories about landclams, fig trees, harmonica fetishists, and the amount of loam Brian Eno has in his boots. It was absurd.
Robyn opened the show with “Chinese Bones”. He followed it up with “Balloon Man”. Both songs were originally on 1988’s Globe of Frogs. I silently congratulated myself for dropping $3.99 on a vinyl copy last month. I hate it when I go to a show and don’t know any of the songs.
The next song was a touching rendition of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Not Dark Yet”. It’s strange how beautiful Dylan’s songs can be when the singer is actually pronouncing the words properly. Robyn talked a bit about Dylan and then dropped another gem on us:
Most babies come from Manitoba.
I could meditate on that for days and still have no idea what he meant.
“Olé! Tarantula” came next. It’s one of my favorites, but I wish he hadn’t played it. I’ve had the line about the “three-legged chinchilla” stuck in my head since last night, and it’s slowly driving me insane. To make it worse, I keep misremembering the line. In my head it’s “I feel like a half-eaten chinchilla” which turns a disturbing image into a disgusting one. Thanks a lot, Robyn.
“Autumn Is Your Last Chance” came next. It was followed by “English Girl”, “Only the Stones Remain”, and “I Something You”. After a brief discussion of Elvis and Led Zeppelin, Robyn played a song called “The Devil’s Coachman” I’d never heard it before, but I liked it anyway. The last line was (and I’m paraphrasing here):
I saw the Devil in our bed. I could have strangled him, but didn’t. I’m English, so instead I made him tea and toast.
That’s Robyn Hitchcock for you.
Robyn then asked Sean Nelson to join him onstage for backup vocals. The first songs they played together were “Cynthia Mask”, “Queen Elvis”, and “Full Moon in My Soul”. Although I enjoyed Robyn solo, I thought Sean Nelson did a good job fleshing out these songs. He stuck around for the rest of the evening.
After finishing “Never Stop Bleeding”, Robyn picked up an electric guitar and made my night by playing “I Often Dream of Trains”. He stuck with the electric for the rest of the main set. It consisted of “Queen of Eyes”, “Creeped Out”, and an inspired take on “Are You Experienced?” by Jimi Hendrix. The last song of the main set was “Adventure Rocket Ship”.
The encore set started out with a discussion of rodents and then morphed into a story about Donovan before finally turning into an acoustic cover of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence”. I guess Robyn was in a Beatles mood because he went right into “Glass Onion”. Both were awe-inspiring.
The last song of the night was a rousing rendition of “(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs”. It’s one of my favorites of the newer songs, and it was a perfect way to end the evening.
Here’s the setlist from the show:
For those of you not interested in deciphering my scrawl (all writing was done in the dark), I have typed it out properly here:
Main set: Chinese Bones/Balloon Man/It’s Not Dark Yet (Bob Dylan)/Olé! Tarantula/Autumn Is Your Last Chance/English Girl/Only the Stones Remain/I Something You/The Devil’s Coachman/Cynthia Mask/Queen Elvis/Full Moon in My Soul/Never Stop Bleeding/I Often Dream of Trains/Queen of Eyes/Creeped Out/Are You Experienced? (Jimi Hendrix)/Adventure Rocket Ship
Encore: Dear Prudence (Beatles)/Glass Onion (Beatles)/(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs
Robyn Hitchcock stuck around after the show and signed autographs at the merch bar. I bought the I Wanna Go Backwards box set (which features my own legit copy of I Often Dream of Trains) and got him to sign the front of Black Snake Diamond Role.
[NOTE: Fellow Voxer Scott was at this show, but we failed to meet up. His member image is too tiny and grainy for me to recognize him in an audience consisting largely of dark-haired men…especially with the house lights off. I thought I saw him at the bar, but it turned out to be his stunt double. Oh well.]