On the day of the gig, the news is full of the updated Sgt Pepper cover for Sir Peter Blake’s 80th birthday, featuring various cultural icons – including Robyn Hitchcock! So after 35 years of making psychedelic music, penning the odd quirky story and appearing in Jonathan Demme films, he’s been promoted from cult icon to national treasure.
His 80s quiff is now a shock of white hair but no faculties were lost in the transition, which means that the audience attracted to his elegant and timeless psych-pop is a mix of young and old, the hairy and the hairless, the hip and the hip-replaced. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of hosts The Word magazine, whose DJ playlist needs a zimmer frame for itself (I mean, Fox’s ‘S-s-s-single Bed’ has been listed by English Heritage as an ancient monument). Even when Robyn plays his second set of old influences (“if I was the plant, these were the nutrients” quoth he) it’s like the coolest ever tape compilation by a favourite older uncle (Syd Barrett, the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, the Doors (a surprisingly good ‘Crystal Ship’), Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry, The Beatles and Bowie). Note to editors of all heritage music mags: this is how to age without disgrace.
His first set is a run through of I Often Dream of Trains from 1984. Unlike the shoddy album playbacks we so often get (I’ve seen Evan Dando take a colossal dump on his own history when he violated the corpse of It’s A Shame About Ray a few years back) Robyn’s approach is to treat the show as a non-sequeturial magical mystery tour around his own brain, using these songs as station stops, a form of surrealistic window cleaning full of between-song flights of fancy (one of the joys of seeing him live). Back with Tim Keegan and the wonderfully versatile Terry Edwards, Robyn and colleagues delight in the acapella ‘Uncorrected Personality Traits’ and the doowop ‘Furry Green Atom Bowl’, while ‘Trams of Old London’ conjures sepulchral images from its achingly nostalgic psychedelic pop. It’s a record we all know and love but in these live shows it’s infused with a new spirit that makes it sound nothing like a 28 old record.
Support is from Bristol’s Phantom Limb, a band who better fit the Word’s demographic with their immaculate ‘70s country, Southern rock and R’n’B influences. It’s great appeal is to those who still carry a torch for the Band, Aretha Franklin and the sound of Muscle Shoals Studios but the thing that brings it to life is the frontwoman; imagine the opposite of a shrinking violet and you’ll find it’s probably called Yolanda Quartey, whose presence is un-ignorable and whose soulful booming voice needs no amplification.