Local hero and national treasure Robyn Hitchcock returned to Cambridge earlier this month for a couple of acoustic gigs at the Unitarian Church. “I must have walked past this building a thousand times,” he says. For we are within spitting distance of Spaceward Studios, the basement rooms where The Soft Boys recorded their first EP for DIY punk label Raw Records back in 1977.
More than 40 years on, singer-songwriter Hitchcock has lost none of the spark, wit and eccentricity that made his first band such a joy. His hair might have turned white but he still wears polka dot shirts and flies the flag for Sixties psychedelia, with his Syd Barrett styled nasal voice and fondness for Revolver-era Beatles guitar. Between songs, his offbeat musings are equally entertaining – he should record a few of the best or publish them as ‘Martian’ prose poems.
As darkness falls outside, Robyn starts with a cover of Dylan’s Not Dark Yet (a new one to me). The excellent acoustics of the domed stage, and the fact that we are sitting in a church, add to the atmosphere of hushed reverence. And when the singer drops into a growled baritone for the pay-off line “… But it’s getting there …” you felt a shiver of recognition.
Hitchcock wrote a bile-filled song for Reagan and Thatcher (and those who voted for them) in 1980 – I Wanna Destroy You – so gawd knows what he makes of Trump and Brexit.
An impressive back catalogue can be roughly divided between light and shade – the sunny Byrdsian folk rock of Autumn Sunglasses or jangly powerpop of Mad Shelley’s Letter Box, and what he calls his ‘dismal’ songs like Trouble In Your Blood and Don’t Look Down. “My songs have a kind of wisdom I don’t have,” says Hitchcock.
For the encore, Hitchcock summons ‘Kim’ from the audience and we are treated to a wonderful version of “I Often Dream of Trains”. Former Soft Boy Kimberley Rew looks a bit like Worzel Gummidge these days with his floppy wide-brimmed hat and haystack hair. But there’s nothing agricultural about his majestic guitar playing. Hitchcock has described his old mucker as “Hendrix on sulphuric acid … or, in sulphuric acid.”
They are perfect together and it feels like a privilege to be in church with these two godlike geniuses.
Videos from Cambridge Unitarian Church:
Mad Shelley’s Letter Box
I Often Dream of Trains (edit)
I Often Dream of Trains (full version)
But if you’re viewing on a laptop, you’ll have to crane your neck …