Robyn Hitchcock is obviously a musician who enjoys a challenge. As a tribute to the late Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, last night he went on stage at The Garage in Highbury with his band and played the whole of the good Captain’s Clear Spot album, originally released in 1972. If you’ve made your mind up to have a crack at Beefheart, and at the same time try not to alienate too many casual listeners, then Clear Spot is an excellent choice of text, being both Van Vliet’s most conventionally funky album and one of his most accessible, but you’re still setting the bar pretty high here – the tricky and intricate guitar parts and the many abrupt changes in tempo make this a collection of songs you’re not going to be able to busk your way through without serious preparation. If anyone’s going to be able to manage it though it should be Hitchcock. He’s got good form on wilfully esoteric and lurchingly abrasive rock music, as anyone who’s familiar with the early Soft Boys recordings can testify, and he’s got a good track record on covering classic material, having previously tackled The White Album, Hunky Dory and Dylan’s 1966 Albert Hall repertoire.
Support was provided by East Anglian saxophone legend Terry Edwards, who had allowed himself to be roped in by Hitchcock for guitar duties in the main band on condition that he could play an acoustic set made up of a few cover versions first. It was an enjoyably eclectic selection: a few jazz standards gently crooned, Dr Feelgood’s Down By The Doctor, The Beatles’ relatively rarely heard You Won’t See Me and, in honour to the late Alex Chilton, Give Me Another Chance by my beloved Big Star. He finished with an idiosyncratic take on I’ll Go Crazy by James Brown, which afforded him the opportunity to switch rapidly between guitar and sax in entertaining fashion.
We then got an unexpected one song interlude featuring Hitchcock, cellist Jenny Adejayan and two backing singers which had been put in, Hitchcock explained, as a “commercial” for his new album Tromso, Kaptein (so new, in fact, that it hadn’t been released in time for the merchandise stall to be able to stock it. I’ve got a copy though, via mail order from the US (/smug)). The song was Old Man Weather and it sounded lovely, and was also the only chance we had this evening to enjoy Hitchcock’s beguiling acoustic fingerpicking style.
For the main event Hitchcock was joined by Edwards on stratocaster and Adejayan again on cello, with Paul Noble on bass and Stephen Irvine on drums. Edwards looked kind of nervous, but the rest of the band seemed game and after some typically deadpan quips about how there’d be a break halfway through to simulate the record being turned over Hitchcock led the musicians fearlessly into Low Yo Yo Stuff. And after recovering from the shock of the sudden increase in volume after the generally mellow opening acts I have to say they sounded pretty impressive. Tight, accurate, with the parts interlocking as they should, and the singer delivering a really quite uncanny impression of Beefheart’s growly and sometimes impossibly deep voice. Hitchcock produced a harmonica for Nowadays A Woman’s Gotta Hit A Man and again reproduced the part more or less perfectly, and the brass parts on the record were delivered very convincingly on the cello, which sounds bizarre but somehow seemed to work. The openings of some of the songs were slightly tentative and fumbled but once the musicians had established the mutant groove things generally worked out OK. Hitchcock was often singing and playing what are essentially lead guitar parts at the same time, which is a very difficult trick to pull off and one that Van Vliet never had to attempt, so he deserves a lot of credit for his musicianship. The only track to actually fall apart was the closing Golden Birdies, for which a roadie had to hold a crib sheet up for Edwards, although it was Hitchcock himself who was the cause of the errors due to his inadvertent transposing of some of the lyrics. The crowd didn’t mind though, and the band came back for a stomp through Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do and Electricity from Safe As Milk as an encore. A short and sweet set, but a hard task successfully achieved – I’ll look forward to Hitchcock attempting Trout Mask Replica some time.