Robyn Hitchcock Offers Clues To His Ultimate Playlist (9:30 Club, April 27th)

Over a span of many years — many, many years — we’ve made playlists from Robyn Hitchcock’s albums, vinyl to cassette tape, CDs to Mini Discs, digital files to iPods and iPads.  It’s hard to do a really comprehensive and good list because, Hell’s bells, he’s been at it so long, writing songs at such a consistently high level, that a really good, career-spanning playlist — starting with the Soft Boys in 1980, up to and including the excellent Love From London, which came out earlier this year — you either fill your hard drive with an impossibly long sequence of  his 500 songs, or you skip over whole decades (the ’90s weren’t particularly memorable), or you start taking a single song from an album in the ’80s, say Element of Light, and the next thing you know, you’ve included the whole thing, the whole album, defeating your curatorial purpose.

Last night Robyn Hitchcock played D.C.’s 9:30 Club with a band so good that Peter Buck played rhythm guitar — yeah, think of that, the multimillionaire legend from R.E.M. goes out on the road as Hitchcock’s sideman — and his set list was just that sort of perfect playlist that has eluded us.  When he strapped on the electric guitar, his long fingers languorously alighting lead notes even as he sang, of course he started with “Kingdom Of Love,” a song first heard when he and Kimberly Rew were giving Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd a run for their money as the best tandem guitar duo in that confused era between punk and post-punk.  He closed his set with “Goodnight Oslo,” (sung with some missed high notes, the quality of his voice necessitating the emollient of tea), and we’d be forgiven if we said, Wow, what a span of amazing songs, except “Goodnight Oslo,” which he loves so much he’s recorded it twice — once in English, once in Norwegian — was released first in 2009, and he’s put out three excellent albums since then!   Yeah, more than three decades on, Hitchcock’s fountain still bubbles with Byrdsy jangle and folk-rock craftsmanship.

To say he is still going strong understates.  To put the timeline in perspective against the quality of music produced, what Hitchcock is doing now would be the equivalent of, say, the Rolling Stones still releasing excellent new music in the late ’90s, right? 33 years on from that first one.  The only artist in rock’n’roll music we know who has had/is having such a late phase claim to greatness is Dylan, and unlike Dylan, Hitchcock still has his voice.  Even if last night some of those high notes were just out of reach.

We love Love From London, though when it first came out, we thought maybe Goodnight Oslo or 2006’s Ole! Tarantula were a bit better.  We’ve since reconsidered.  Last night, playing the wonderful “I Love You” and “Fix You,” Hitchcock reminded us just how great that album is.  He limited himself to two songs from the new album because, clearly, even he has trouble choosing the great songs to offer, and it’s a zero-sum game, if he’d taken too many songs from Love From London, he wouldn’t have been able to give us “Element of Light,” or maybe “Underground Sun.”  (On the latter, the band did something so charming… having forgotten the bridge, after they ended the song, they remembered what they’d left off, started up again, and played the bridge!)  He wouldn’t have given us “Madonna of the Wasps” or “Adventure Rocket Ship” or “N.Y. Doll.”

He came back with an encore consisting of, get this, “I’m Waiting For the Man,” followed by Dylan’s “Too Much of Nothing,” followed by “She Said She Said” and “Eight Miles High.” Well, did we mention that Peter Buck was in his band.  Brilliant.  A complete gem of an encore package, missing only, like, “Parachute Woman” to have hit ’60s evocation nirvana.

And now, having heard the set last night, maybe we have our dream playlist, at once a concise distillation of Hitchcock’s greatness, and a reminder that it’s really just a taste of this most satisfying career.

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