Robyn Hitchcock has always been a singular artist, even back when he fronted The Sort Boys, a psychedelic post punk crew. While they could storm through the nihilistic rant of a song like I Wanna Destroy You he remained calm in the centre, his Home Counties voice cutting through the guitars. His lyrics inhabit a world that’s like a Magritte painting, the mundane juxtaposed with the incredible, peopled with crustaceans and statues with other worlds hidden behind mirrors. While he credits Dylan as his first influence he’s incorporated the psychedelic whimsy of Syd Barrett, the autumnal tones of Nick Drake and the jangled rock of the likes of REM into his work.
It’s a privilege really to see such an artist as Hitchcock in the cosy confines of Mono; close up and unplugged he commanded attention, the audience were rapt throughout, no chatter at the bar just a sense of respect and admiration. The stage was set by Australian Emma Swift who has recorded with Hitchcock and whose lachrymose country songs were well received. Her version of Gram Parsons’ Brass Buttons highlighted her aching bittersweet voice while the suicide note that is Rowland Howard’s Shiver was delivered with a fine mix of tenderness and defiance. Her own song, Seasons, marked her as a writer and singer who could be up there with the likes of Lucinda Williams, a sense reinforced by her recorded version of the song.
Robyn Hitchcock opened without fanfare with a cover of Dylan’s’ Not Dark Yet and it wasn’t until after a devastating delivery of My Wife And My Dead Wife that he spoke to the audience. Thereafter most of the songs were treated to a weird and wonderful prologue with Hitchcock reminiscing about past appearances in the area going back to the lunacy that was the Bungalow Bar in the eighties to the Renfrew Ferry. He recalled the era of the trolleybus, dedicated songs to the brass beer vats to the side of the stage and bamboozled the audience with time shifts and warps reminding us that he would be here at the same time yesterday if we arrive tomorrow or some such tomfoolery. Introductions to the songs were hijacked by flights of fancy, the transition from life to death likened to the difficulties of mastering an I phone.
The audience ate up Hitchcock’s raps which were at times hilarious. He was serious when talking about his forebears, introducing his sensitive version of Robin Williamson’s song, Nightfall as his second twilight song of the evening after the opening Dylan song. With I Got The Hots For You the one nod to the Soft Boys tonight Hitchcock played several songs from his latest album The Man Upstairs that showed he continues to be a most intriguing writer. With Ms. Swift on hand for some excellent harmonies San Francisco Patrol and I Used To Say I Loved You were magnificent before the pair launched into a shiveringly good Queen Elvis. Their rendition of Follow The Money, a Hitchcock song recorded by the pair for a record store day single was an exemplar of harmonised singing and they ended with a superb rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty with Swift and Hitchcock swapping worlds with Emmylou Harris and Gram parsons for a nanosecond. Simply superb.