As we locked up our ride and made for Mercy Lounge, The Spin took a moment to appreciate the little nip the air had taken on following the afternoon thunderstorm. Anything’s an improvement on the late-summer blanket of moist heat that makes it feel like we’re living in a car wash; if the cool temperature and high humidity whipped up some London-like fog, all the more appropriate for a set from England’s ever-pleasant Robyn Hitchcock. Upstairs, the cabaret tables were in the middle of the floor, and Tim Hibbs, The 5 Spot’s Two-Dollar Tuesday DJ, blasted the deep cuts while we searched for a spot amid the 40 or so other patrons.
With a list of known associates ranging from neo-folk stars Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings to post-roots-rockers The Minus 5 and a catalog of songs deep and varied enough to rival his hero Bob Dylan, Hitchcock’s shows are tough to predict — and that’s the way we like it. The bare stage indicated that Thursday’s performance would be intimate and predominantly acoustic, in sharp contrast to Hitchcock's most recent album, the electronic-tinged Love From London. Around 8:30, Hitchcock appeared onstage in one of his trademark oversized shirts, reading glasses tucked in the neck, and jumped straight into the set. We all know why we’re here — who needs an introduction?
Hitchcock’s guitar’s remarkably rich tone showcased his sublimely understated finger-style playing with roots in an array of folk styles, from English ballads to American prewar blues to Indian ragas. Propelled by a chugging art-punk intensity, ringing clouds of tone radiated out to fill the space around his voice, a cultivated nasal drawl he’s used to his advantage rather than trying to mask or alter. The recipe owes much to the late Syd Barrett, but in the end, Hitchcock has made a fluid style all his own. We thought for a minute that we might enjoy a Robyn Hitchcock comedy improv show, when we realized that we were watching exactly that. His self-effacing, semi-surrealist lyrics gain a critical perspective by looking sidelong at reality, spilling over into the stage banter as he explained with mock seriousness a conspiracy to hide country singer Jimmie Rodgers’ identity as a land shark.
The first set was entirely solo, and continued the deep-cuts theme; The most easily recognizable song was “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” and the newest was “Love Tractor” from 2006’s Ole Tarantula. After a short break, Hitchcock was joined by Grant-Lee Phillips for what constitutes possibly the best writers’-night setup we’ve ever seen. There were a few of Hitchcock’s own songs, mostly from Queen Elvis — a welcome but unexpected choice, considering that Hitchcock and Phillips first worked together on Jewels for Sophia, and Hitchcock played all of the songs he was going to play from that record in the solo set.
The excellent selection of covers touched on The Band, where Phillips’ lead vocal on “Whispering Pines” evoked every ounce of Richard Manuel’s wide-eyed, lumbering pathos. Takes on George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” and The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” with Hitchcock on harmonica, emphasized the songs’ country roots. There was even a goofy medley of David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision,” Dr. Hook’s “When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman,” and Carl Douglas’ novelty hit “Kung Fu Fighting,” with some improvised lyrics added for the hell of it.
Hitchcock and Phillips were a perfect match. Despite their immense talents, they forced each other to underplay, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. They later revealed that instead of a set list, they’d written down a bunch of songs they had briefly rehearsed on the back of a paper plate (see photog Angelina Castillo's slideshow for a shot of that), and were mostly winging it. With the elegiac chorus of “Trams of Old London” as a lullaby, we counted ourselves lucky to have witnessed a spectacle of true craftsmanship, and marked the calendar to watch for the next visit.