Tag Archives: Terry Edwards

Robyn Hitchcock plays I Often Dream Of Trains, The Lexington, London 2/4/12

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.

Advertisements

Robyn Hitchcock plays Captain Beefheart, The Relentless Garage 3/6/2011

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.