Robyn Hitchcock Brought His Guitar, Sense Of Humor, And The Best Catalogue In Rock To His Two Nights At Jammin Java

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It is an article of faith in these here parts that the songwriter with the strongest collection of songs written over the final two decades of the 20th Century and the first two decades of this one is Robyn Hitchcock. For much of this Spring, Tulip Frenzy World Headquarters has rung with the chiming sounds of a two-hour long playlist of Hitchcock’s work going back to his time with The Soft Boys.  Our daily commute of late has passed far faster thanks to continuous playing of his most recent, eponymous album, his best in years.

Wednesday night at Jammin Java Hitchcock played a solo acoustic set featuring 20 of his own songs and a handful of covers.  Only one of his songs was off the new album, and just one more was chosen for our two-hour compendium of personal favorites.  Does this give you a sense of just how deep his oeuvre is? The show was, of course, brilliant.

Like Bob Dylan — his only threat in the Championship Round of the competition — Robyn Hitchcock’s songs are based on beautiful melodies, artful phrases, and an underlying sense of humor.  (“There’s a thin line between what you do and what you should/Every time I cross it I just feel insanely good.”) Both artists have surrounded themselves with great musicians, can easily shift between real rock’n’roll and quieter folk, write love songs with tenderness and irony, and are as much rock historians as they are musicians. (Though unlike Dylan, we can’t think of a Hitchcock song, even those that are mean, containing the least glimmer of misogyny.)

So why is Bob Dylan “Bob Dylan,” and Hitchcock playing solo before an audience of 200 or so at a small club in suburban D.C.? We have a theory, but first, more about Robyn Hitchcock, his hardest rocking, most complex, and best album of the past decade, and a bit more about that show Wednesday night.

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Hitchcock makes his home these days in Nashville, and thank Heaven he does, because his neighbor, Brendan Benson, was inspired to produce his newest record, requesting that it sound like The Soft Boys.  Robyn Hitchcock, released in late April, does sound like The Soft Boys’ two ’70s records, as well as his first solo album, Black Snake Diamond Role, which came out in ’81. Truth be told, it also sounds like the 19 studio albums he’s released since then.  That is the purest of compliments. Few are the artists who have changed so little over 40 years — and thank God for that.

To the uninitiated: if you want a good entry point to Hitchcock’s work, at age 63, his new album provides it. From the hard rocking opener, “I Want To Tell You About What I Want,” to the gorgeous closer, “Time Coast,” it touches every base.  When rock critters describe Hitchcock’s influences and antecedents, Dylan, the Beatles, Kinks, and Byrds are the first references, with those looking to score points throwing Captain Beefheart in — not because he sounds like Don Van Vliet (though they do each possess multi-octave voices), but because of his absurdist sense of humor.  On the new record, Hitchcock sounds like… Dylan, the Beatles, Kinks, and Byrds, which is to say, after 40 years of record making, he sounds like Robyn Hitchcock, an artist who should be in their ranks, but somehow isn’t, except in our house, and those of uplifting gormandizers.

On Wednesday night, Hitchcock dipped into his repertoire and sang in strong voice, the fingers of his left hand moving like a tarantula up and down the neck of his guitar, songs introduced with a stand-up comic’s storytelling magic.  It was one of those sets that remind us that live music can transport us from the tedium of the everyday into another, better world.

So back to the question of why isn’t this greatest songwriter of the past 40 years carried around in a sedan chair, his face adorning The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, dozens of bands referenced as Hitchcockesque? Other than the old standbys that life is unfair and there is no justice, we think there may be a reason, absurd though it may be.

Our theory is that, when the Soft Boys hit our shores in that second wave of British punk, and found common cause with the jangle of the dBs and other Big Star/Byrds and folk-infused bands like R.E.M., Hitchcock’s English eccentricities put him in a box.  A radio programmer might grok an incredible song like “Kingdom Of Love,” but with lyrics like these — “You’ve been laying eggs under my skin/Now they’re hatching out under my chin/Now there’s tiny insects showing through/And all these tiny insects look like you” — Hitchcock could be segregated into the Captain Beefheart box, chains wrapped around it, visible only via underwater moonlight, pushed away from the main currents of even “alternative” music.

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Over the ’80s and ’90s, Hitchcock released a powerful series of albums that occasionally broke through, with songs like “So You Think You’re In Love” getting radio play.  Hell, Jonathan Demme made a concert film and put him The Manchurian Candidate. By the 21st Century, he was putting out one amazing album after another — dip into Ole! Tarantula, or any of the Oslo albums, Goodnight Oslo or Tromso, Kaptein, and you will hear work deserving to be in the same conversation as Love & TheftModern Times, and Time Out Of Mind.  And yet there he was at Jammin Java, for financial reasons not even bringing the ace band of young Nashville tyros who played with him last week in L.A., stomping through a proper set of rockers culminating in the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.”

Robyn Hitchcock is a national treasure — and he’s ours now, fuck Britain.  His shows should be performed at the Verizon Center, or at least he should be able to tour, like his hero Bob Dylan, minor-league ballparks.  At Jammin Java Wednesday night, he began his two sets with Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” and concluded it with “Visions of Johanna.”  In addition to covers of songs by Nick Drake and The Doors, he played 20 originals spanning 40 years of our devoted fandom, 40 years of pleasure. His body of work is so rich he could play 19 songs not on our list of his greatest ones and the evening still was glorious. That he is hilarious and eccentric is his charm and his undoing.  No one and nothing, not even time and commercial neglect, can take away his greatness.

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