Surreal of shirt and surreal of song, Robyn Hitchcock returned to Liverpool and Getintothis’ Jamie Bowman was there to listen to a master of British psychedelia.
Arriving at the sweaty confines of the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall’s Music Room after a blisteringly hot day, it’s something of a shock to be met with icy psych-folk of The Left Outsides.
London-based husband and wife Alison Cotton and Mark Nicholas are an arresting sight on stage with Cotton’s long red dress and severe fringe hinting at the Gothic atmosphere which underpins their eerie weaving of strings, garage guitar and droning harmonium.
Think Nico if she had fronted Steeleye Span rather than the Velvet Underground and you’re somewhere close to approximating their bewitching sound which seems to entrance the early evening audience.
Since founding the art-rock band The Soft Boys in 1976, Robyn Hitchcock has recorded more than 20 solo albums which have crystallised his reputation as a delightfully English eccentric in hock to Bob Dylan but unable to shrug off the psychedelic surrealism of Syd Barrett or Kevin Ayres.
To those devotees here tonight, Hitchcock’s between song banter is as essential to the man’s appeal as his gem-filled back catalogue and armed only with an acoustic guitar he doesn’t disappoint with frequent spoken diversions on such typically Hitchcockian topics as cheese, fish and insects.
Sometimes it’s hard to work out where the mind wanderings stop and the songs begin with Trilobite’s tale of prehistoric etymology (“Built for a world where nothing needs shaving / Look at them stone antennae a-waving“) typical of his subject matter.
In a similar vein, frequent requests to the long suffering soundman become a running joke throughout the show: “make my voice sound like I don’t have a cold” he asks at one point before late requesting “a snappy bunch of session men” to back him.
Of course all this would become rather tiresome if it wasn’t for the captivating brilliance of so many of Hitchcock’s tunes. De Chirico Street from 1996’s Mossy Liquor is a rollicking treat while Television pulls off that neat trick of being both funny and more than a little disturbing (“I’m so small in your dimension / My kid will look like you, I swear“).
These delightful jaunts through his past feel special like sharing an anecdote with old school pal and no more so on the spiralling power pop of The Soft Boys‘ Queen of Eyes or the stunning finger-picking frenzy of 1988’s I’m Only You (“I’m a policeman working in an empty house / I’m a distant steeple on a long-deserted plain“). Only My Wife and My Dead Wife was missed by its absence.
Cover versions have long been part of the Hitchcock tradition and he doesn’t disappoint with an encore dedicated to Dylan’s 1966 tour of the UK. Faithfully fantastic versions of 4th Time Around, Gates of Eden and Visions of Johanna follow and perhaps it’s credit to the 62-year-old Hitchcock that the source material never casts a shadow over the replicas.
“I’ll be back in two years if we are all still here,” he says as he departs the stage. 40 years on Hitchcock remains our most cultish of songwriters but that should not obscure the undeniable brilliance of an artist in a world of his own.
Images by Getintothis’ Paul Wills