Even though Robyn Hitchcock’s been living in Nashville for the last few years, he’s not suddenly been corrupted by the machine and had his muse carjacked into writing songs about pickup trucks, chicks, and getting drunk on Natty Lights. However, he’s seriously toned down the fish and insect references over the last couple of decades, and if you want a flavor of his stream-of-consciousness surrealism that would make Dali’s mustache spin around, you’ll need to wait for the between song breaks. I can’t speak for the rest of the sold out room, but I’ll never think about wet cat food and airline pilots the same way again.
When you’ve got twenty-odd solo records under your belt, as well as a mighty arsenal of covers (more on that later), creating a set list can be like a Rubik’s Cube, with endless possibilities. Hitchcock makes use of his deep repertoire, and while he didn’t plumb the extreme depths as he did in NYC, playing his first solo record with Yo La Tengo as his backing band, as well as reaching far into some of his obscure solo tracks and assorted Soft Boys songs, he hit to all corners of the field as well as Wade Boggs did in his prime.
As he left Peter Buck and his other friends known as the Venus 3 behind for this tour, it was just him and his acoustic guitar. Singing his particular verses while playing some intricate patterns isn’t the easiest task in the world, and I often feel that he’s sorely underrated as a guitar player. The carefully plucked, circular notes of “I Often Dream Of Trains” faded as the song came to a close, and Robyn sang “I’m waiting for you, Emma, Emma, Emma?” instead “I’m waiting for you, baby, baby, baby.” Which was the cue for Emma Swift to come on stage and play both sides of their recently released 7″ single.
It’s hard to believe that “N.Y. Doll” is over ten years old, and Arthur Kane’s untimely passing remains one of Hitchcock’s most achingly beautiful songs, a paean to the odds of surviving until you don’t. If you don’t tear up a bit as he sang “But in the library of your memory/People live in their books/till the pages close/Close on me like they’re gonna/Close on you,” you’ve got a heart of stone.
And… onto the encore. As part of the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan plugging in, the final set of Newport Folk Fest in 2016 was devoted to a slew of performers playing Dylan covers. Though the rumor rippling across Fort Adams was that Bobby Z himself would appear, that didn’t happen, but a few musicians who didn’t play the festival did make appearances. Hitchcock was one of those, playing what he proclaimed as his favorite song of all time (“Visions Of Johanna”), and Al Kooper also appeared, the man behind the keyboards for that period of Dylan’s career arc. They must have exchanged contact info at the show, as Kooper would appear tonight when Hitchcock played a trio of Dylan songs. In addition to “Johanna,” Emma Swift joined in for “Just Like A Woman,” and the meandering “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” steered the show to a close. Despite his slight vocal problems that a brandy magically cured, Hitchcock laid out a kaleidoscope of fractured psych/pop genius once again.
Emma Swift, an Aussie who’s also found herself residing in Nashville, provided opening duties and played a mesmerizing, minimalist set of barely strummed electric guitar and breathy, whispered vocals, like she was letting you in some sort of secret. And she’s obviously got a pretty deep knowledge of the best bands from her native land, playing a cover of Boys Next Door’s “Shivers” that ended her set.