In some ways, Robyn Hitchcock picked up right where he left off. Roughly 23 months after we last shared a room—and exactly 20 months after I bought tickets to this pandemic-delayed concert at First Congregational Church of Montclair—Hitchcock breezed through a setlist that had more overlap with his November 2019 show than with the more adventurous nights he curated immediately before and after this one.
That’s the trouble with having instant access to every setlist; it’s too easy to get insanely jealous of the rarities and novelties you missed by a day when you’re comparing titles rather than performances. And the performance at the gorgeous gothic-revival church was very fine, with Hitchcock’s voice amply filling the sanctuary, vaulted ceilings and all; his melancholy guitar lines possessing a grace all their own; and his banter about heroes, villains and former friends as incisive as ever.
He scattered just a few requests (including “I Saw Nick Drake,” which MAGNET photographer Chris asked for) among the staples, but if Hitchcock seems determined to play “Adventure Rocket Ship,” “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox” and “I Pray When I’m Drunk” every chance he gets, it’s understandable when you see the energy and delight he derives from them in the moment.
But there is something electrifying about hearing material that isn’t as predictable. Early in the show, Hitchcock noted that it was St. Lennon’s Day—the eve of what would have been the Beatle’s 81st birthday—but the conceit didn’t truly begin to pay off until he set his guitar aside and sat at the piano. Musing about how the artists he’s listened to the most manifest in his own work, Hitchcock introduced “Somewhere Apart,” from 1986’s Element Of Light as “one of the first John Lennon songs I wrote.” Returning to the piano for the encore, he covered “Isolation” and “#9 Dream,” murmuring, “Oh, Johnny, what a voice.”
The musical high point of the night, however, was another piano tune: Hitchcock’s own “Ghost In Sunlight,” a work in progress—or, as he put it, “a corridor to what I hope will be a complete meltdown.”
1988’s Globe Of Frogs provided three of the night’s first five songs—“Vibrating,” “Chinese Bones” and “Luminous Rose”—and they sounded particularly lovely. Only the Soft Boys’ 1980 classic Underwater Moonlight yielded as many numbers—“Tonight” to open the main set, “Queen Of Eyes” and “I Wanna Destroy You” to close it—and they sat comfortably with all that came between. Speaking of how he’s dedicated that last one to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson and the previous American president over the past 40 years, and it’s made no difference at all, he concluded that hatred begets more hatred, with no end in sight, before thanking the fully vaxxed, masked and attentive audience for cautiously opening the door to live music again, and that’s about as upbeat as it gets in our corner of the world.
After observing that time is elastic when you’re onstage—as when you’re in the air, you could be somewhere past Iceland or only over Nova Scotia—he ended the encore with “Madonna Of The Wasps,” so appropriately heavenly that the discomfort of sitting on a hard church pew for almost two hours barely registered, and “Cynthia Mask,” no less enjoyable for being in Hitchcock’s regular rotation and having such an on-the-nose title. After all, it’s better to be on the nose than under it. The time between shows has taught us that much.
—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich