Robyn Hitchcock is one of those artists whom, for many, will have a name that’s more familiar than the music he’s recorded. Often billed as the “musician’s musician”, the one time Soft Boys frontman has many famous fans, including R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. This evening, he’s appearing at the very intimate Ramsgate Music Hall on the Kent coast. He’s attracted a crowd ranging from devoted fans to the merely curious. We’ve arrived with no real expectations, but the opportunity to see such a cult figure up close isn’t one to be missed.
Robyn is supremely confident. So much so, that tonight’s performance is driven by banter; most of which is absolutely bizarre, but definitely helps form a night to remember. “I’m not used to this set up”, he says, presumably referring to being so exposed to an audience of approximately a hundred faces. As his opening ramble progresses, it turns out he means nothing of the sort. What follows is a surrealist tale regarding building an act. “There are years of training”, he says, “...on Guernsey. They put you in a gig simulator. You have to play in front of thirty computer generated people. When you get good at that, you’re allowed to move on to the second phase of training in Jersey. I’m sixty five now and finally considered good enough to play in front of a real audience...”
Other tales follow, ranging from cheese addictions; how retuning guitars affects the mental states of pet rodents; testing body parts to ensure they don’t fall off (something inspired by his own moment of shoulder manipulation); albums only released in Norway; the story of where his new shirt was purchased and several exchanges with his sound man, ranging from the obvious “Can you make this old six string sound like a well played twelve string?”, to the more fun “Could you make me sound more like Ron and Keef for this one?”, right through to the gloriously absurd “This time I want a Fleetwood Mac rhythm section!”, by which time, it’s obvious for one man armed with a semi-acoustic guitar, the sound man can produce no such thing. Equally quirky is his explanation that sometimes it isn’t a string that’s out of tune…it’s actually the other five!
It’s not all about the banter, of course – even though Robyn’s brilliant personality carries the weight of the evening – and the set-list is very well chosen, stretching from brand new material to tracks dating right back to 1980’s ‘Underwater Sunlight’. Beginning the evening, Hitchcock demonstrates his lovely use of acoustic harmonics (he’s a very underrated player) before moving into The Soft Boys’ ‘Tonight’; there’s an immediate contrast, but contrast a mood that dominates throughout and Hitchcock knows that without a band, it’s solely down to his own choices whether the set sags. Mixing the fun with the more serious really helps the set to move apace. The country tinged ‘I Pray When I’m Drunk’ and ‘I Want To Tell You About What I Want’ (both from the 2017 eponymously named disc) sit very naturally against better known material like ‘I Often Dream of Trains’, while a spiky ‘Cheese Alarm’ allows Hitchcock to get busier with his six strings.
‘Fifty Two Stations’ and ‘The Speed of Things’ pay homage to Robyn’s eclectic past in style, but they are no match for the set’s major highlight when ‘My Wife, My Dead Wife’ allows a great insight into his quirkiest song writing. Countless performers have written about love and loss, but few have done so in such an image laden way, presenting the loss as a spirit that only the protagonist can see. It’s a song that brings a whole new slant to the idea of viewing people who’ve left us through a rose tinted prism. Pockets of the audience laugh nervously – Robyn’s unique style causes unease among the unfamiliar – but it’s certainly one of the evening’s moments that’ll stay longest in their memory.
Nearing the end of the main set, ‘I’m Only You’ uses delay and effects to weave a circular psychedelic loop – something that from the front of the venue works very well, but from the back could well sound like a mess. Given the minimalism of the performance as a whole, it really shows that Hitchcock has the years of experience to understand set pacing and structure, before bowing out with a short and sharp performance of ‘Mad Shelley’s Letterbox’ where his six strings are manipulated into something more full bodied. An encore introduces Australian country singer Emma Swift (a face more than familiar to Hitchcock’s fans) for a duet on The Everly Brothers’ ‘Let It Be Me’, a number full of rich harmonies before the almost psychedelic Americana feel of ‘Ole! Tarantuala’ proves a fine way to end a performance that’s gone all too quickly.
The small venue has helped turn tonight’s performance into something very special, certainly, but the material has to be able to stand in the first place, and tonight it’s clear that Hitchcock’s work has some strong legs. In the solo performance set up, it’s been almost impossible to distinguish between thirty year old numbers that have gained a cult reputation and the rambling numbers that are relatively new, a fact that suggests that while Hitchcock may now be in late middle age, his manner and material retains a great relevance to the present.
So…we arrived with no expectations. We’re leaving convinced that Robyn Hitchcock is certainly one of the UK’s most underrated performers and songwriters. A job well done…