Robyn Hitchcock's chatter is as artful as his songs

November 17, 2008


When it comes to stage patter, there’s perfunctory, there’s innocuous and then there’s Robyn Hitchcock.

One of the psychedelic troubadour’s many talents is the ability to spontaneously unleash great gushing torrents of free-associated surrealism in between songs, playing with language the way a great bebop improviser plays fast and loose with melody.

Early in his solo career, before he’d settled into the security of his enduring cult-hero status, these absurdist monologues were a mainstay of Hitchcock’s shows. He’s given us many fewer in more recent years, but it was fitting that he returned to them with abundant glee during the first of two sold-out shows Saturday night at the Old Town School of Folk Music, since the tour was devoted to revisiting “I Often Dream of Trains,” the brilliant 1984 album that stands as the most introspective of his ample catalog.

Hitchcock’s masterful third solo album has been released, re-released and re-re-released in numerous different versions during the last quarter-century, each with a different running order and alternate outtakes. True to his restless and perverse nature, he didn’t follow any of these official set lists at the Old Town, instead using his monologues to create yet another version of the album and illuminate, however obliquely, his mindset at the time of its creation.

“Many years later, you thought you realized what your motives were,” the singer and songwriter said at one point. In 1983, disheartened by severe commercial indifference and a music world that treated him as a leper, he had abandoned his bid for pop stardom and begun working as a gardener, perhaps permanently. After some time, he felt an undeniable urge to begin recording again, and if only for his own edification, he began filling home-recorded four-track cassettes with melancholy, poignant and beautiful songs imagining a man in the autumn of his life.

Now a white-haired 55 and much closer to that mark than he was at the time, Hitchcock returned to these achingly gorgeous tracks on Saturday, including the stunning instrumentals “Nocturne” and “Heart Full of Leaves,” the wistfully nostalgic “Trams of Old London” and “I Often Dream of Trains” and the haunting “Cathedral” and “Autumn is Your Last Chance.”

“I walk through the heather / Underneath the sky / The leaves have never looked as good / As now they’re going to die,” he movingly sang in the latter.

Of course, there was also quite a bit of skewed humor: Even at his darkest and most depressed, Hitchcock has never stopped laughing. With able backing from “Captain” Tim Keegan on acoustic guitar and Terry Edwards on horns and piano, he also rolled through gonzo anthems such as “Sounds Great When You’re Dead,” “This Could be the Day,” the country goof “Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus” (rewritten to update the threat of nuclear annihilation by the Russians with terrorist bombers and global warming) and the show-stopping three-part a cappella turn “Uncorrected Personality Traits.”

In the end, the only classic “Trains” track that Hitchcock skipped was “Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl,” mysteriously offered just as a snippet played by Captain Keegan on a hand-held cassette recorder at the very start of the show. But that’s a minor complaint when the night also included one newly unearthed rarity from that era, “That’s Fantastic Mother Church,” that was easily as strong as anything included on the album, plus a decades-spanning three-song encore (“What You Is Is What You Are,” “Raining Twilight Coast” and “Goodnight I Say”) that perfectly synopsized the many ways Hitchcock has grown and polished his artistry since.

Thankfully, English gardening’s loss has very much been pop music’s gain.