Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift
Thursday, November 17, 2016
As Robyn Hitchcock’s touring partner for a number of years, Emma Swift received a warm welcome at City Winery from the headliner’s fans. The Australian transplant by way of Nashville colored tremulous guitar chords with her rich and winsome alto on songs including a cover of Nick Cave’s confessional “Shivers.” Wrapping up, she thanked the audience and made an offer that no one could refuse. “If you come and see me after the show, I can pay you for the fabulous therapy session I’ve just had,” she said.
Hitchcock arrived, as Swift had promised, in a fittingly loud polka-dot shirt. He opened by digging deep into his catalog for The Soft Boys’ “Tonight” from 1980’s Underwater Moonlight, followed by a 30-year-old favorite in “Raymond Chandler Evening” from 1986’s Element of Light. “All of these songs were democratically elected,” he announced soon afterward, noting that he couldn’t promise the Russians hadn’t had anything to do with the results. If the set list seemed like a fan’s dream, it was because Hitchcock had drawn the bulk of it from internet requests.
The singer performed career-spanning favorites in an order that gave them a story-like flow and momentum, with many pauses for captivating stories as songs. With equal influence by psychedelic-era Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize-winning observational poetry, Hitchcock’s lyrics were often absurdist on the surface with heart and brain running in deep veins below. He called out Barrett, Nixon and Monty Python before declaring “You could vote for Labour then, but now you can’t anymore,” during “1974,” imbuing fresh relevance to a song that first appeared on 1998’s Storefront Hitchcock soundtrack.
Hitchcock’s comical-serious banter revealed the emotion hidden within some of his quixotic songs. He introduced “The Devil’s Coachman” as a song from a time when more of his albums were released on compact disc than vinyl. CDs gave him the horrors, he said, connecting the dots to his lyrics by comparing the backdated media’s shape to a cutting blade. “It’s about how thin people can slice each other when a relationship goes wrong.”
Swift joined Hitchcock for beautiful harmony on the surrealist “Glass Hotel.” The pair then practiced their Nashville harmonies on their lilting and melancholy new single “Love is a Drag.” George Harrison’s “Isn’t it a Pity” echoed through the forlorn denial of b-side “Life is Change.”
Without the force of a rhythm section, Hitchcock maintained rapt attention with his hypnotic vocals, richly-voiced alternate tunings and inventive rhythms on acoustic guitar. Still, he couldn’t help asking for aid from “a higher power.” Calling to the house’s mix engineer through the darkened room, he said, “If you could make me sound angelic and like a great guitarist …” What happened next was a pretty close fit, as Hitchcock finished the main set with the reflective “Airscape.”
Hitchcock returned for an encore of songs from his own record collection. “As deeply connected as I am to Robyn Hitchcock records, I don’t often listen to them,” he said. First was a beautiful tribute to the recently departed Leonard Cohen with a cover of “Suzanne.” The show concluded with a stirring version of Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.”
– Review by Jeff Elbel. Photos by Philamonjaro.