Live Review: Robyn Hitchcock, Philadelphia, PA, April 24, 2024

Suspended in a peculiar time—a palindromic date falling one year and a day after his most recent release, reflective, instrumental album Life After Infinity, and two months before his next artifact, memoir 1967: How I Got There And Why I Never Left, comes out—Robyn Hitchcock predictably ignored his immediate past and future at World Cafe Live in favor of a set that plumbed a deeper and more fractured history.

Hitchcock waded through the primordial muck to pluck 16 gems from the musically fertile, morally bankrupt decade Margaret Thatcher held in her iron fist—an era neatly delineated by the Soft Boys’ sophomore album, 1980’s Underwater Moonlight (represented by “Queen Of Eyes” and “I Wanna Destroy You”), at one end, and his 1990 solo outing, Eye (from which he drew “Aquarium,” “Cynthia Mask” and “Queen Elvis”), at the other. A sonic archaeologist might be tempted to excavate each vessel and examine its components: textures inspired by Syd Barrett, Nick Drake and the Byrds; material crafted in the company of erstwhile Egyptians Morris Windsor and Andy Metcalfe, among others; the natural erosions and accretions that come from performing the same songs alone and with a shifting cast of collaborators across the years; and, not least, the unique baggage brought to Hitchcock’s idiosyncratic lyrics by each listener.

It’s this collective unconscious—his, theirs, yours and mine—that infuses live performance with much of its meaning, and that seemed especially true at this sold-out, seated show. After all, my “My Wife And My Dead Wife” and your “My Wife And My Dead Wife” may be very dissimilar creatures, though corporeally identical. “Madonna Of The Wasps” carries a distinct sting depending on whether you focus on the hereness of Hitchcock’s yearning voice and nimble fingers or the inherent heresy of Peter Buck’s absence, even all this time later. “Queen Elvis” revealed a new face following an introduction that dislodged memories of the disgraced Morrissey, while “Balloon Man” landed in a different light for those wearing Bangles T-shirts. (That might have just been me, but I didn’t look too closely at strangers’ torsos.)

One of the most moving moments was Hitchcock’s reclamation of “Century,” a long-forgotten song that languished as an unsatisfactory demo for 17 years or so before seeing a small semblance of the light of day as a bonus track on the second reissue of Eye in 2007, only to become a staple of this tour 17 years later. Other highlights came in the requests he entertained, including You & Oblivion rarity “Surgery” and a flippant yet affectionate dedication of Perspex Island’s “So You Think You’re In Love,” the only number of the night that was written, recorded and released in the 1990s, the decade in which I discovered Hitchcock and most of the other music that sustains me—the decade I never really left.

Amid all of Hitchcock’s amusing intros and increasingly existential directives to the soundman, his stellar guitar lines and his ability to exist in the moment with us even as fragments of our hearts and brains remain, stubbornly, in 1967, 1992 or some alternate timeline altogether, the tune that burrowed deepest in my ears, followed me home and slipped out of my mouth for more than a week after the show was the last one of the night: “One Long Pair Of Eyes.” Was it how gorgeous the music sounded in the moment? Or the conversation immediately afterward, when a friend who hadn’t crossed paths with Hitchcock in years spoke of his connection with the singer and the song? Or the serendipity that my spouse had the same melody stuck in his head, and we kept playfully volleying it back and forth for days? All of the above, I’m sure.

Though both performer and audience seemed most attached to sacred relics from the ’80s, Hitchcock seemed particularly animated when playing the setlist’s six 21st-century entries: back-to-back tunes from 2006’s Ole! Tarantula, the title track and “Adventure Rocket Ship”; “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox,” from his self-titled 2017 record; and “The Shuffle Man,” “The Sir Tommy Shovel,” and “The Man Who Loves The Rain” from 2022’s Shufflemania! (For most Philly fans, this was the first chance to see Hitchcock play songs from his last non-instrumental album, since his only appearance in town to promote it was a short, unpublicized set opening for his partner, Emma Swift, in World Cafe Live’s smaller upstairs venue during game five of the 2022 World Series between the Phillies and the Houston Astros.)

Though it evidently represents a smaller part of the crowd’s communal imagination—a hazard of having a loyal, aging fanbase with an affinity for the music that defined their youth—that his relatively recent work was so very well received is proof that Hitchcock is far from exhausting his trove of influences and experiences and then alchemizing them into songs no one else could write.

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich