Robyn Hitchcock's Eccentric Charms Play Well at the Birchmere
For any musician aspiring to become a cult or critic favorite, Robyn Hitchcock's splendid performance at the Birchmere on Tuesday served as a perfect primer.
Step 1: Be old, or at least not young. You need ample time to attract a fervent following and release countless overlooked albums. The 55-year-old Brit has been writing fractured pop gems for 30 years, and Tuesday's show was devoted to one of his many minor masterpieces, 1984's "I Often Dream of Trains." Hitchcock and his two-person band shuffled the order and skipped one song from the percussion-free album but offered a vibrant re-creation of its largely acoustic, wintry sounds.
Step 2: Be weird. Hitchcock has this covered, and then some. Whether it's his attire (he wore bright purple pants and a black shirt with white polka dots, to match his similarly designed guitar), his banter (there was an extended monologue about discovering "Truth" while lying in a sarcophagus on the side of the Beltway at 1:35 a.m.) or the songs themselves (take the absurdist a cappella "Uncorrected Personality Traits" as just one example), there's nothing about Hitchcock that's conventional.
Step 3: Be funny. When talking about how easy and inexpensive it is to make a sparkling recording these days, he said, "You used to have to make very expensive records with Daniel Lanois" to achieve a nice sound. (Bonus points for the reference to Lanois, a noted Canadian record producer). Songs such as "Sounds Great When You're Dead" are also littered with laugh lines: "Your mother is a journalist/Your father is a creep/They make it in your bedroom/When they think you're fast asleep."
Of course, none of the above would matter much without great tunes, but that's never been an issue with Hitchcock. "Trains" may be the most Syd Barrett-influenced album of his career, a stark, strange song cycle about dreams and death, with admittedly limited appeal. But encore performances of "Queen Elvis" and "Madonna of the Wasps" displayed a pop acumen that's rarely matched by anyone, young or old, weird or normal, funny or serious.
-- David Malitz