The Word magazine has in recent times established a fine tradition of putting on intimate yet usually fully attended shows featuring talented and well seasoned performers in an excellently equipped room above The Lexington pub in Islington (or alternatively, as a one-off, aboard a pleasure steamer going up and down the Thames). Having finally realised that this venue is only stumbling distance from Kings Cross station, and thus viable as a weeknight evening out, I attended my first Word In Your Ear gig last night: Word editor Mark Ellen’s old mate Robyn Hitchcock revisiting his 1984 masterpiece I Often Dream Of Trains. As it happens this is one of my desert island albums, probably, so it seemed rude not to turn up.
Support act for the evening was Bristol outfit Phantom Limb, whose subtle and multi-layered blend of country and soul probably warrants more focused and dedicated attention than I was able to give in this environment. They’re a six piece band who play mid-tempo for the main part with plenty of space for Yolanda Quartey’s powerful yet controlled vocals to stand out. Guitars are often used for textures and fills rather than to propel the songs along, with the playing on the upright bass much more prominent than that of the drummer. They do raise the pace here and there, even if they never do anything so vulgar as rocking out, and are clearly pretty talented players. I didn’t pick out much in the way of hooks or distinctive lyrics but maybe these songs are growers and need repeated listens to bed in.
For the main event Hitchcock had also assembled a six piece, though for the most part only a few of them are on stage at any one time. This is unexpected: one of the main reasons the Trains album stands out as so distinctive and out of time is its stripped down, echoey, almost skeletal nature, with most of the songs being carried by Hitchcock alone, with just his acoustic guitar, piano or multi-tracked vocals as accompaniment. But in contrast to when he’s tackling an album by somebody else (such as Captain Beefheart’s Clear Spot last year, which was delivered with remarkable verisimilitude), RH displays a refreshing willingness to try new approaches to his old material – as he says in one song introduction, the album’s changed, but not as much as he has.
So instead of a straight, respectfully faithful, runthrough, we get a bit of a re-mix. Some tracks are dropped (Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl, This Must Be The Day, Heartfull Of Leaves) while others are promoted from out-take or CD-only status (Winter Love, I Used To Say I Love You, Mother Church, My Favourite Buildings). Stalwart Hitchcock sideman Tim Keegan and Terry Edwards are on hand to handle acoustic guitar duties (Keegan) and sax, keyboard, trumpet and shaker (Edwards), along with cellist Jenny Adejayan and backing singers Jen Macro and Lucy Parnell. The performance doesn’t disappoint, and any changes made to arrangements generally enhance the songs: Cathedral is stunningly beautiful, with Hitchcock and Keegan picking out delicate harmonising patterns on their acoustics, the cello underscores the plaintive Flavour Of Night most effectively, and even my least favourite track on the album, the cod country and western Sleeping Knights Of Jesus becomes something of a delight with the addition of sweet backing vocals. The highlights are the two purely acapella oddities Uncorrected Personality Traits and Furry Green Atom Bowl, which are simultaneously hysterically funny and technically highly impressive. The intricate and idiosyncratic harmonies of these two must have taken some rehearsing. Only on the solo title track does Hitchcock stumble a bit, possibly because he’s played it so often (certainly as part of pretty much every show I’ve seen him do over the last 15 years) that he’s finally losing interest in it. Otherwise, this set was a triumph, and I’m properly happy to have finally witnessed these peculiarly fragile and interior songs live at last.
But that’s not all. After a short break Hitchcock comes out again to play some songs by artists who have been a particular influence on him (“If I’m the plant, these songs are the nutrients” he deadpans). If anything, these renditions are even more impressive than what went before – you’d expect RH to be able to busk his way adequately through a Syd Barrett tune, even if it is an interesting choice (Waving My Arms In The Air/I Never Lied To You), but it takes real talent to pull off Nick Drake’s fiddly picking on River Man, or re-cast The Doors’ The Crystal Ship convincingly for acoustic guitar. I’ve got no idea how RH manages to sing in tune and time at the same time as executing this delicate finger picking but he seems to have no trouble. The other songwriters represented include Bryan Ferry, The Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson, Lou Reed (not a Velvet Underground song surprisingly, but the ultra-morbid The Bed, from Berlin), The Beatles (more startling multi-part harmonies on the dauntingly complicated Because, with Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside one of the singers this time) and David Bowie, whose Quicksand closed the show. No complaints at all, other than wishing they’d done Life On Mars, and you couldn’t have wished for a better sound mix or more respectful and appreciative audience (nobody in the room talking during the quiet bits? When does that ever happen?) Brilliant gig, and plenty of time for the last train home. I shall come here again.