Robyn Hitchcock: Sublimely Weird

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Age is only helping Robyn Hitchcock settle into his role as wizened surrealist singer and mystic storyteller.

More than 45 years after starting his first band, the founder of the Soft Boys who went on to fronting the Egyptians and a long, accomplished solo career is a unique troubadour — a singer who can create a splendid musical reverie of abject strangeness and splendid ’60s chords while freestyling fantastical spoken word tales between songs as he tuned.

In a nicely balanced show last week among the wonderfully rough-hewn beams of The Barns at Wolf Trap in rural Virginia, Hitchcock, 66, played guitar and sang, blew some harmonica and began a second set at a Steinway piano. His tousled hair now white, he also divided his attire between a seasonally-attuned flowered shirt with birds on it and another that portended the coming summer, with a popsicle pattern.

Songs fluctuated from nifty obscurities to former MTV staples, with crowd-pleasers like “Balloon Man” and “Madonna of the Wasps” amid things like the opening “Man with a Woman’s Shadow,” and more recent “Light Blue Afternoon.”

The selection from his latest self-titled album is his closest stab at at straight-ahead country, “I Pray When I’m Drunk,” though it sounded less so live. He had a new single he was selling too, so he sang the pleasing “Sunday Never Comes.”

He brought back an old one, “Ted, Woody and Junior,” in anticipation of a special request for an upcoming date, but otherwise took no requests. Every date on the current tour, tough, seemed unique in its song selection and direction; such is the freedom of a solo tour.

Throughout, he’d continue an ongoing conversation with the sound man he named Bob, requesting that his six-string start sounding like a well-played 12 string at one point, or that his voice would take on aspects of a cathedral at another. And there was a running joke needling Bryan Ferry.

Sitting at the piano to begin the second set, he seemed to gravitate toward his more straightforward and emotionally vulnerable songs – the echo on his voice making him sound even more like John Lennon, a connection he made himself when ending the show with the illusion-bonfire of “God.”

It came after his other cover, an unusual piano version of Syd Barrett’s already weird “Astronomy Domine” from Pink Floyd’s debut album (unusual because the spacey song was originally done on guitar and organ).

But Hitchcock has found a kindred spirit in Barrett, adventurous, poetic and maybe even cracked, even as British rock courses through his veins.

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The setlist for Robyn Hitchcock Thursday was: 

  • “Man With a Woman’s Shadow”
  • Balloon Man”
  • Chinese Bones”
  • Never Stop Bleeding”
  • San Francisco Patrol”
  • Underground Sun”
  • The Lizard”
  • Fifty Two Stations”
  • I Pray When I’m Drunk”
  • Sunday Never Comes”
  • I’m Only You”
  • “Flavour of Night”
  • “Somewhere Apart”
  • “Ted, Woody and Junior”
  • “Winchester”
  • “Madonna of the Wasps”
  • “Saturday Groovers”
  • “Light Blue Afternoon”
  • “Queen of Eyes”
  • “Astronomy Domine”
  • “God”
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