Monthly Archives: March 2013

New music from old timers

Only three months in, and 2013 has already seen the release of a positive avalanche of albums by people I’ve been long interested in, as well as quite a few good ones by younger, and some might say fresher, bands. This is in stark contrast to last year, when none of the new records I heard made much of an impression on me (the big exception being the extraordinary Transcendental Youth by The Mountain Goats, which I played to death. But I’ve rambled on enough about them already). Time for a round-up on what various old codgers have been up to.

BowieNext Day

The biggest news is the sudden re-emergence after a decade of silence of David Bowie, who on his 66th birthday in January unexpectedly made available on the internet a brand new song, the wistful and haunting Where Are We Now? The accompanying album The Next Day followed a couple of months later, and showcases the erstwhile fragile and reclusive Dame in what appears to be rude health: it’s a robust and disciplined collection of fourteen energetic rock songs (that single turned out to be something of a red herring) that sound tailor-made to shake the foundations of your nearest 80,000 seater stadium (not that there’s any hint that he’s going to be touring, oh no). Given Bowie’s reputation for being a restless innovator the most surprising thing about the album is the unapologetic lack of experimentation and the fact it pays no lip service at all to any modern or technological musical trends – with its full-on guitar soloing and occasional saxophone fills it sounds like the fanbase-pleasing album he should have put out in 1983 instead of Let’s Dance. He gets away with it though, because these are pretty much all really good songs, urgent, catchy as hell, complex in places without being irritatingly arty and displaying a line in mordant lyric writing that provides a lot more to get your teeth into than the trite sloganeering of the average guitar-based megastar. And You Feel So Lonely You Could Die belongs on any Bowie best-of issued from here on.

NickCavePushSky

Nick Cave on the other hand has maintained a workaholic rate of output for years, with the gaps between his “official” Bad Seeds albums filled with side projects, movie scripts, soundtracks and novels. His new one Push The Sky Away finds him in stripped-down reflective form, with a restrained contemplative mood running through all the songs, and no grotesque mad-preacher freak-outs to be found anywhere. This is the first Bad Seeds album not to feature founder member Mick Harvey and it shows – to fill the gap multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis provides gentle but insistent loops and riffs with frequent washes of organ and violin in the background. Just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean that this is ignorable though: Cave’s vocal presence, lovely melodies and arresting imagery (which often seems drawn from his adopted home town of Brighton) make this as enchanting an album as his other low-key entry The Boatman’s Call, although the two records don’t really resemble each other much at all.

JohnnyMarrMessenger

It’s taken twenty-five years from the break-up of The Smiths for genius guitarist and consummate sideman Johnny Marr to release his first solo album proper. Anyone who loved his former band will want to hear The Messenger as it’s full of the familiar elegant chiming guitar work that Marr sometimes seemed to actively want to suppress in the days when he was helping out The Pretenders or Electronic or The The and as an object lesson to upcoming indie bands as to how to record and layer riffs and textures it’s unimpeachable, but sadly what it doesn’t have particularly are strong tunes or much in the way of presence or character – in some ways these sound more like templates with guide vocals than actual songs. Marr obviously cares about his craft and has thought about his lyrics but sprinkling self-consciously dynamic words like “generate” or “velocity” around the song titles smacks a little of trying too hard. It’s by no means terrible, and some of the melodies do start to stick after a while, but you can’t help feeling that Marr really needs a charismatic frontperson to really make the most of his gifts.

BillyBraggToothNail

Marr’s one-time songwriting partner Billy Bragg returns from his mission to re-ignite interest in his noble predecessor Woody Guthrie with Tooth & Nail, an album of personal rather than political songs recorded live in the studio with his new band. Bragg’s excitement about this project and the quick and spontaneous nature of its creation led me to expect something quite raw and rough but actually it turns out to be mellow, midpaced, delicate and definitely more country than rock, with comforting and familiar structures and devices much in evidence. So musically nothing special, but Bragg’s saving graces are his lovely, never compromised, Estuary singing voice and his deft way with a lyric, finding delightful rhymes and wry ways to undercut himself just as you think you’ve worked out where the song’s heading. I can even forgive him the bad grammar of No-one Knows Nothing Anymore for the sake of the pleasing alliteration.

CamperVanBeethovenCosta

Camper Van Beethoven are former alt-folk-indie-rockers from California who will be forever treasured (by me, anyway) on account of the immortal single Take The Skinheads Bowling and their supposedly farewell album Key Lime Pie, which came out in 1989. Since then they’ve regrouped as the slightly more mainstream Cracker, broken up again, and then reformed under their original name, releasing first a re-recording of the whole of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk double album, then the epic, yet surprisingly tuneful, concept album New Roman Times which was something to do with martial law being imposed in the USA and one man’s efforts to resist it. This new album La Costa Perdida is a lot more relaxed and digestible, has some pleasing summer-y guitars and harmonies and will be the ideal soundtrack if the weather ever improves around here enough to think about having a barbecue.

PereUbuLadyShanghai

Confrontational veteran art-rockers Pere Ubu have on the other hand never been relaxed or mellow, although they have dabbled in what experts might call “skewed pop”. It’s now thirty-five years since they unleashed the terrifying, but remorselessly thrilling The Modern Dance on the world, a record that sounds at first like a demented baby squealing over a random mash-up of construction noises and electronics malfunctioning but is actually positively groovy given a chance, and they’re still at it: the new one, The Lady From Shanghai, is in the main bracing, disciplined and not overtly cacophonous and even features their gnomic leader David Thomas crooning “you can go to hell” to the tune of Ring My Bell, but they’ve thoughtfully remembered to include six minutes of disjointed thuds, static and warbling at the end just to keep it real.
JohnGrantPaleGreen

Former Czars frontman John Grant hasn’t been making records nearly as long as everyone else on this list but he still qualifies for inclusion as he’s (just about) older than me. Pale Green Ghosts is the follow-up to his heroically bile-filled 2010 solo debut The Queen Of Denmark, which successfully married some of the most self-loathing and wittily acidic lyrics I’ve ever heard to perfectly rendered and highly infectious Harry Nilsson style soft-rock backings. Frankly, it’s a masterpiece. The new one hasn’t moved on much subject-wise (character assassinations of ex-lovers feature prominently) but Grant’s made an effort to find new musical settings, with a lot of the tracks sounding not unlike stark, electronics-heavy 80s dance tracks, a bit like Prince’s Sign O The Times. Truth be told, I’m not much taken with this approach as it all gets a bit minor key and samey, and titles like You Don’t Love Me Anymore and It Doesn’t Matter To Him don’t really help to lighten the mood. This album does however contain one all-out classic in the jaunty and sarcastic GMF. The G stands for Greatest and the M for Mother and I’ll probably stop there.
EdwynCollinsUnderstatedFinally, I just got hold of Edwyn Collins’s new one Understated, which may actually turn out to be the best thing I’ve heard so far this year – eleven lovingly well turned soul and pop songs, with a touching cover of Love’s Been Good To Me (as previously recorded by Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra) at the end. These tracks are melodic, tight, punchy and completely disarming, thanks to Edwyn’s distinctive vocals and phrasing, and his positive, sincere but never cloying lyrics, that focus on his good fortune in still being alive and active after some horrific, life-threatening experiences. I can’t think of another songwriter who’d get away with using Forsooth and Understated as titles, but Edwyn makes it seem as natural as breathing. I’m going to see him next month, it could be an emotional night.





Compliance

Compliance

Compliance, written and directed by Craig Zobel, is a horribly effective reconstruction of one of a series of disturbing episodes involving malicious prank calls to fast food restaurants that took place in the US a few years ago. A highly plausible and devastatingly manipulative caller would pose on the telephone as a high ranking police officer investigating a fictitious theft supposedly perpetrated by one of the cashiers – in the example played out here the combination of a stressed-out manager and some unfortunate failures of communication meant that the consequences of the call went some way beyond the mere humiliating.

Coming in at a brisk ninety minutes Compliance wastes no time with set-up, dropping us straight in at the start of an evening shift at a branch of Chickwich. The way that events unfold in this one location in not-quite-real-time reminds me a bit of the contained hostage siege of Dog Day Afternoon, though this film has none of the humour and warmth of that classic: instead, we get a gradually escalating ordeal, with the mysterious caller’s initially fairly reasonable requests for his suspect to be detained pending the arrival of the police somehow leading to demands for her to be strip-searched, and worse. Zobel’s skill in selling the predicament and giving the audience enough reasons not to scream “why doesn’t somebody just call the police and check?” at the screen is formidable, and he’s helped by some spot-on casting, with Ann Dowd as the put-upon supervisor having to make difficult judgement calls while trying to keep the customers happy and Pat Healy as the sinuously crafty voice at the end of the line particularly impressive. You can’t quite believe where this all ends up, but a title card at the start of the film assures us that no details were exaggerated, and there’s no one step in the incremental raising of the stakes that stands out as the point where someone should really have put the phone down. It’s so well staged and unrelenting that I found it actually quite gruelling to watch and was definitely relieved to get to the closing section, in which the scale of one man’s crimes and the terrible effects he had on many people’s lives were made clear. I’d hesitate to recommend this as a feelgood night out, but it’s brilliantly made, and makes its point about the dangers of blindly acquiescing to an authoritative voice with mortifying clarity.

Guest Blog! Nicola reviews Palma Violets at Cambridge Junction, March 20 2013

PalmaViolets

As covered in other reviews describing their tour to date, this band is shambolic.  On reflection I think it’s a studied and practised shambles, giving their set its air of spontaneity, of keeping it fresh for the audience. Not that these lads are trying to deceive.  They are a celebration of noise, youth and verve. And, they are a party. Judging by the keyboard player’s mighty fine collection of wrist bands, they must have had a great festival season last year and can’t wait to pick up where they left off this year.

The PV came on stage to The Damned’s New Rose.  A whole generation of music fans think of The Smiths every time they hear Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture, so these little details are important.  Furthermore, it set the tone for their set and gave us their mission statement.  They had been very ably supported by Baby Strange, a Scottish Sham 69  (and nowt wrong with that.  Even if derivative, they played a strong and well-received set.  It was shouty but the band maintained the fine line of not letting it become noise. You know that those who weren’t there in the day will take to it like ducks to water.)

Back to the party…

Given the age of the band and that they look like they have just got back from several days at Glasto having had their tent and all their clothes stolen, and don’t know what a comb is for (they’re boys, for goodness sake!), it’s not surprising their bombastic delivery is based on the discovery that amps really do go up to 11 (in their heads their do!) and Sir has wandered off from the music room so they scratch away at their guitars and beat the hell out of their drum kit for all their worth.

The lyrics of the first two PV songs were indiscernible (in the spirit of the gig me working them out by a process of elimination would be, well, taking them, myself and this review too seriously).  Thereafter, they ripped through the up and coming generation’s seminal CD of tunes.  It won’t take a genius to work out that it was not a long set.

When the band and the audience’s reaction merge and feed off one another it becomes an event.  Okay, in this instance a mini-event – it was hardly Pulp at Glastonbury.  The audience went wild (one’s heart goes out to Johnny Marr and his fans last week who were denied this Cambridge audience and wanted some reaction – anything!  Instead of the quiet, considered appreciation of Cantabrigians).  The unified response quickly turned into pushing and shoving and on occasion spilled over into bad reactions to unsolicited jabs and trodden feet, as it had done with the support band, prompting an appeal from the band.  Whilst it looked like the majority of the audience were sixth-formers, there were some youngsters with cautious parents and those that had been there in the day with in-between generations hardly represented.  (We spoke to a ‘seen better days’ father and his daughter in the queue for the cloakroom after the gig.  It turned out the daughter was the nominated driver!)

The lads, their play list, the audience’s reaction all smack of zeitgeist.  Are they just capturing a mood and a ‘you had to be there’ moment?  Was the gig evidence of the up and coming generation’s reaction to ceaseless bad news and lack of prospects – who wants to live with their parents forevermore because they can’t afford to buy and rents are extortionate? Hence, the two bands’ material harking back to punk’s glory days and the audience being ready for it – needing it!

Having abandoned the guide to delivering a good set, it calls to mind the Blade Runner (mis) quote: ‘a light that burns twice as bright burns half as long’.  Certainly, the PV boys are having a blast but will it translate into more?  The lead singer has got a driven-in voice that smooths out any rough edges and won’t let them down as they progress musically.  And, the band are right behind him.

The party peaked with an encore of 14.  The PV mate’s had already been invited on stage to join in with some shouting in a mic duties at the end of the set.  This time he was joined by the support band. As the houselights came on and the Junction staff started to sweep up, the band’s mate swept through the crowd shouting, gathering people like the pied piper of Hamelin, insisting the party wasn’t over determined to take it elsewhere.

In a nutshell: the gig was a party and, the best bit, everyone was invited.

 

Cloud Atlas

CloudAtlasAs adaptations of unfilmable novels go Cloud Atlas is pretty damn spectacular. The book, by David Mitchell (no, not that one), is comprised of six novella-length stories that are deliberately wildly contrasting, not just in their settings and characters but in the style that they’re written in – Mitchell manages however to sustain a convincing voice and an involving plotline for each one and also weaves in some ingenious devices to link them all together. The first story is historical and is told via the journal of a philanthropic but naive American gentlemen who falls ill while on an exploration of Pacific islands in 1849, and from there every successive section is set further on in time (in 1932, 1975, present day and a credible near future) until we reach a post-apocalyptic and perilous wilderness, described in an invented dialect that brings to mind that of the narrator of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. The author’s most striking innovation is to cut every story in half, leaving each on an abrupt cliffhanger before starting the next, with the action not to be resolved until we’ve worked up through every scenario and back down again. This demands a certain amount of forbearance from the reader (particularly in regard to our nineteenth century explorer, whose predicament is left dangling for several hundred pages) but does add to the propulsive quality of the book, as one’s constantly anxious to find out what happened next.

You’d think that the visual and stylistic clashes that would be inevitably thrown up by any attempt to render it all on screen would make a film unwatchable but directors Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski have found a way through, which succeeds in tying the strands together by jettisoning a lot of Mitchell’s careful structuring and instead emphasising at every opportunity the connections between the different segments, to the extent of deploying the same cast multiple times across the stories. A more faithful approach might have been to make six short films and present them in order, and one might even have gone to the extreme of making the first one silent, the second black and white, the third on a simulation of yellowing film stock and so on up to 3D and surround sound for the last but practically that wouldn’t ever be a goer, whereas the decision to smooth out the differences does end up working really well, even if at times it feels like the directors are terrified at the prospect of the audience losing interest through having to watch the same strand for too long. The film jumps freely back and forth from one time period to another, exploiting as many chances to match similar situations and actions in different segments as it possibly can, and heaping on chases and mortal peril and thrilling escapes and even the odd brawl in a pub in its mission to keep us watching. This slightly nervy editing isn’t really necessary: every one of the six scenarios could stand fleshing out into a satisfying full-length film of its own, and these films would include an edgy conspiracy thriller centred around a San Francisco nuclear plant, a broad slapstick comedy set in old people’s home and a brilliantly well-realised Bladerunner-ish sci-fi dystopia about the abuse of clones that in itself is a far better use of the Wachowskis’ talents that those awful Matrix films. All the way through it’s vivid, colourful and engaging and occasionally things happen that are truly unexpected.

The three hours of the film fly past, and I haven’t even mentioned the sheer ludicrous majesty of some of the extreme make-ups, prosthetics and hair-pieces that are used to make the various incarnations of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae and Ben Whishaw distinct from each other, with Hugh Grant’s fearsome cannibal overlord particularly eyebrow-raising. There is of course the question about what it all signifies, and there, beyond some vague feelgood stuff about the value of connections and the importance of freedom and truth it feels a bit, well, cloudy, although I did feel definitely uplifted by the end. In some ways Cloud Atlas reminds me quite a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant Magnolia in the way it communicates something positive about the human spirit by showing us people overcoming various setbacks, although it doesn’t have anything like the resonance, invention or weirdly life-enhancing discomfort of that film. It’s amazing it got made at all, let alone that it works this well, and I just hope the folks who put together the wigs won a few awards for their trouble.

Johnny Marr, Cambridge Junction, March 12 2013

JohnnyMarr1

A mere quarter of a century after The Smiths broke up and guitar legend Johnny Marr is touring in promotion of his debut solo album The Messenger (although he did put out an album about ten years ago credited to Johnny Marr and The Healers but I’m not sure anyone really acknowledges that). I’m sort of amazed to discover he’s playing a show in Cambridge, and at the comparatively intimate Junction rather than the Corn Exchange, and having finally managed to see Morrissey a few years back it seemed only fair to make the effort to balance my ex-Smiths-songwriter account. I don’t know for sure if this concert sold out, but it was certainly pretty crammed in there, and I was lucky to get in early enough to secure a place near the front among a convivial and pleasingly mixed-age crowd – this had the feel of an event rather than just another gig.
FURS

First things first: the support. Three-piece outfit F.U.R.S play the sort of sultry stripped-back garage pop that reminds me of The Kills. They’re pretty good, making up for what they lack in stage presence with a full clear sound and some briskly delivered songs that hold the attention. There’s no bass, but the guitarist appears super-competent and is able somehow to supply enough echoey tinkly bits via his effects pedals to keep things interesting, with the singer occasionally supplementing the mood with a bit of keyboard. It’s nothing startlingly original but they’ve got tunes and they’ve got hooks and they’re a more than decent appetiser.

At the stroke of nine the main man appears wearing a sharp Mod shirt and jacket and sporting a haircut that has something of Bradley Wiggins via The Beatles about it. Straight away any questions about this former side-man’s ability to hold the stage evaporate as he and the band (Jack Mitchell on drums, Iwan Gronow on bass and Doviak on second guitar) launch confidently into the strident The Right Thing Right at a decibel level that has the building shaking, before delighting the audience with Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, the show-stopper that The Smiths didn’t last long enough to perform live. This band is not lacking in attack and is clearly fiercely well drilled to boot. It’s four songs in before Marr talks to the crowd, thanking us for coming out and demonstrating an ushakeable and very Mancunian self-confidence by dismissing one punter’s request for Miserable Lie as being a bit retro. He’s not into wasting time though and the band carry on at a fair lick, with Marr being canny enough to throw in an old favourite every now and then to break up the run of newer and less familiar material. By mid-set both band and audience are dripping with sweat. This is a proper work-out by someone setting high standards for himself, to the degree of leaving his top button done up all night.

JohnnyMarr2

Despite the efficiency and energy of the performance I do however have a few reservations that keep me from being totally won over. Partly it’s the nagging sense that both Marr’s new songs and his (technically faultless) vocals are fatally lacking in the character necessary for them to really register and partly it’s that the relentless barrage of quite similar sounding not-quite-anthems gets a bit wearying. I find myself aching for JM to send the band off for a couple of numbers, pick up an acoustic guitar and treat us to something delicate and unadorned like Back To The Old House. Marr’s too classy and committed an operator to ever really let the show descend into sludgy Oasis-style Dad-rock but the danger signs are there. Even when they do it slow it down and bring on a keyboard it’s not really much in the way of relief, and the contrast between the audience’s muted reaction to this song and the eruption that ensues on the intro to the next (“an old Manchester folk song” also known as Bigmouth Strikes Again) is striking. My main beef though is with the horrible muddy too-loud sound mix, which may well be out of Marr’s control as it wouldn’t be the first time this problem’s cropped up for me at this venue. It may well just be me getting old, but I’m reaching the end of my tolerance levels for slabs of distorted over-driven guitar noise and barely discernible vocals – it wouldn’t be so bad, but here and there you can tell Marr’s executing some elegant fingerpicking and it would be nice to hear it properly.

My issues with the gig fall away with the encores though. A punchy I Fought The Law is followed by a supple take on Electronic’s Getting Away With It, the more overtly melodic and less confrontational nature of which provides a clue as to how Marr might want to vary the pace of his main set in future. He closes with a faithfully rendered and rapturously received How Soon Is Now? and actually getting to hear that much sampled grinding and shimmering riff played by its composer more or less justifies the ticket price alone. I’ve now heard versions of this song done by both Morrissey and Marr…I’ve only got to hear Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce try it and I’ve got the set. It was great to see Marr despite the ropeyness of the sound, and the exuberance of the audience reaction indicated that I was definitely in the minority with my reservations. By all accounts he’s a lovely bloke and he deserves his success.

Silver Linings Playbook

SilverLiningsPlaybookMy mopping up of recent critically rated movies continues with Silver Linings Playbook, for which Jennifer Lawrence just picked up a best actress Oscar. I don’t know whether there’s a recognised sub-genre for off-beat dialogue-heavy films revolving around a troubled young individual retreating to his or her family home and then striking up unlikely but redemptive connections with other troubled young individuals but I seem to have seen quite a lot of them (Garden State and You Can Count On Me spring to mind straight away), and if this a category SLP falls squarely into it. Pat (Bradley Cooper) is a bi-polar and fiercely earnest school teacher whose job and marriage disappear from under him when he finds himself institutionalised after a traumatic and violent episode. He’s full of nothing but good intentions though, and when his mother springs him from the facility he’s determined to do his best to make amends and win back his wife, despite an inconvenient restraining order and his refusal to take his meds making all his social interactions tense at best. As he himself says, he has no conversational filter and is incapable of dissembling for the sake of maintaining a cordial tone. Eventually he catches the eye of Tiffany (Lawrence), who’s attempting a recovery from her own set of personal calamities, and events play out more or less along the lines you’d expect, though with enough plot swerves, hyper-charged confrontations and over-ambitious dance routines to keep you engaged throughout. There’s a lot of shouting and swearing and raw nerves on display here but it’s actually a pretty sweet film – although more or less everyone on screen is suffering from psychological damage (most prominently, Robert de Niro as Pat’s OCD ballgame-obsessed father) none of the characters are selfish or malicious, and all of them are striving for a happy ending. Not sure JL really deserved that Oscar over Emmanuelle Riva’s amazing turn in Amour, but it’s nice that something in which the stakes are this small and personal got some kind of nod.

Robyn Hitchcock, Cambridge Junction, March 2 2013

RobynJ2Compared to the mild awkwardness I felt at finding myself among a throng of noisy teenagers at Tuesday’s Jake Bugg gig the experience of going to see my old favourite Robyn Hitchcock at Cambridge Junction last night fell so deep within my comfort zone they might as well have supplied me with slippers, a pipe and a copy of The Racing Post at the door. I’ve been going to see Hitchcock roughly once a year since the days when he was knocking about with REM and being in danger of actually having a hit (So You Think You’re In Love made it as far as Radio 1’s C-playlist – imagine!) and even when he seems a bit constrained by having to operate within someone else’s format he always manages to come up with fresh variations on items from his enormous repertoire and enough deadpan surreal stage banter to make you stop missing Monty Python. This gig was put on as part of his sixtieth birthday celebrations (the big day is in fact today. Happy birthday Robyn!) and it’s been a while since I’ve seen him get the chance to play whatever material takes his fancy (at the last couple of shows I went to he was re-staging whole albums, either his own or somebody else’s). I didn’t have any particular expectation but this turned out to be a wonderful gig, one of the best I can remember him doing, so anyone wanting a hard-nosed critical appraisal rather than a torrent of gush might want to stop reading now.

StrandedHorse

First though, a quick mention of the support act. Stranded Horse is the stage name for Yann Tambour, a highly dextrous musician who alternates between the acoustic guitar and the kora, a West African instrument that looks a bit like a sitar but sounds in Tambour’s hands more like a harp. He explains that he made the koras he has on stage with him himself and that they’re significantly smaller and more travel friendly than the real thing, but they seem pretty authentic to me and he plays them beautifully, plucking out multiple fiddly lines of melody at a speed that’s frankly heroic. Tambour’s songs are complex and resolutely non-commerical folk ballads that he runs together into suites that last ten minutes or more, and while this is a test on one’s concentration you can’t deny that there’s a lot going on in there or that you’re witnessing a highly impressive talent. The audience remains hushed throughout and at the end we’re thanked for our attention and patience – you can imagine there’s not many environments that a performance this singular would be tolerated this well.

After a break the main man comes on, picks up an unflashy acoustic guitar and kicks off his set with the rather lovely Old Man Weather. I’ve seen him play solo many times, and often with a full rock group, but the general rule seems to be that the fewer musicians he has on stage the better, and for this gig the backing is perfect: just Jenny Adejayan on cello and Lucy Parnell on occasional harmonies. It makes for a sound both clear and full – Adejayan is formidably gifted, providing strong and arresting underpinning, and even sound effects here and there (very convincing seagull noises on The Wreck Of The Arthur Lee), but never obscuring Robyn’s beautiful finger picking and elegantly clipped strumming.

Robyn J2b

There’s a relaxed vibe in the room. Hitchcock’s enough of an old pro now to be comfortable with shuffling the running order, and even suggesting songs that he knows they haven’t rehearsed (Parnell in particular seems to get a lot of “you don’t know this one, but you’ll pick it up…it’s very predictable” comments coming her way, which to her credit she never seems fazed by). Robyn knows the crowd’s on his side, and explains jokingly that the show will be enhanced by not being tainted by slickness and perfection, but one reason he gets away with it is that they’re actually not sloppy at all: one or two fumbled intros aside, everyone gets it spot on, and some of these songs have never sounded better. Hitchcock’s recorded output has seemed a little underwhelming to me of late, with bland production not helping some slightly pedestrian material, but the selections they play from these albums tonight all sound great: the Johnny Marr co-written Ordinary Millionaire, the Kinks-y Dismal City, the epic, churning Goodnight Oslo. The stuff from the yet to be released new record also chimes out, with Be Still standing out as a potential classic. There are plenty of oldies too (though as Hitchcock observes in one of his many brilliant between-song rambles, at his age even the new songs he writes are old songs by virtue of him being old when he wrote them). I’m delighted to hear Queen Elvis and Beautiful Girl from Eye, and there’s a sprightly Sinister But She Was Happy to be enjoyed too. Towards the end of the set a couple of guests are introduced: Nick Barraclough, at whose Cambridge folk club Robyn got started in the early 70s, adds banjo, to great effect, to Glass Hotel, and then inevitably ex-Soft Boy Kimberley Rew appears armed with a Stratocaster. Possibly also inevitably, Hitchcock and Rew choose a Syd Barrett song (Terrapin) to take on for the first encore, and you can’t argue with that, given its author used to live less than a mile from this venue.

This was a warm and inspiring show from someone who never seems to disappoint, or fall into routine (to be honest, it was worth turning up just to hear the improvised patter about the Queen’s vomit and the current lack of a Pope to dispense baby-acquiring advice at the bus stop). The band finished by taking a bow in front of a highly appreciative audience (one or two standing ovations), and it’s just great to see a singer/songwriter this prolific and unjaded in a forum this intimate. Hitchcock is surely some kind of national treasure. Just don’t tell too many people about it.