Robyn Hitchcock settled in at City Winery for the second time in just over a year, with just himself, a guitar, a harmonica and a piano as tools to enthrall and humor the collective room. Oh, and his wide-ranging internal thought process too. That’s pretty essential and has been his secret ingredient and common thread throughout a career that stretches back to the ’70s. The brain under his brilliantly white hair has been busy creating enigmatic, surreal vignettes of sea and insect life intersecting with humanity for decades, in a thoroughly original way.
Going into the show with a Hitchcock neophyte, I mentioned that the between song banter of Robyn’s off-kilter spiels is worth about a third of the ticket price. Not that it’s any knock on tonight’s set list selections, but tonight that ratio would be closer to 50%. He immediately riffed on the somewhat cramped sitting quarters of the crowd, likening it to an airplane. During a quick tuning, he mentioned that he likes to make the out of tune string go way out of tune, and to go up or down to find out what direction to go. “It’s a political gesture,” the ex-pat Englishman quipped. Of course the piloting skills of Tubby, his cat, made a reappearance as did Stalin, Eisenhower, Churchill and the members of R. E. M. It’s a whirlwind trip through the unfettered reaches of his psyche, and you’ll get inscrutable platitudes (“Accept cheese into your life and it will accept you”) as well as some truly insightful nuggets (“Never trust people who invade. Their intentions are never good” and “If we were designed for introspection, our eyes would swivel towards the back of our skulls.”)
Any time Hitchcock reaches back to 1984’s I Often Dream Of Trains is a good time, the starkly autumnal songs a perfect match for this time of year. The title track echoes a seasonal affective disorder we all share (“The sun sets at four o’clock, exactly what I’m dreading”) while the more overt “Autumn Is Your Last Chance” underscores the seasonal change. He transposed the archly gorgeous “Cathedral” and spun the reminiscently bittersweet “Trams Of Old London” with partner Emma Swift joining in on sublimely gorgeous harmonies towards the end of the night.
After a brief intermission, Hitchcock manned the piano, the jauntily Beatlesque “Somewhere Apart” giving nod to some of his musical heroes. Dylan’s the lodestar of his work, and while he didn’t cover what he’s said in the past is the greatest song ever written, he played his own “The Ghost Ship” that belies Zimmerman’s influence on his work, a mutated longform Dylan ballad mutated into a sea shanty. “Madonna of the Wasps” and “Queen Elvis” were only missing the celebrated Soft Boys song/Byrdsian janglefest that is “Queen Of Eyes” for the trifecta, but when you’ve got a deep and brilliant songbook to pull from, you can’t play them all.