Compared 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.
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.
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.