Still Eccentric After All Those Years
Three decades on, English rocker Robyn Hitchcock is still a unique charmer. He plays Tuesday at Shank Hall.
Top Show: Robyn Hitchcock at Shank Hall, Tuesday, February 24
A week after this show, Robyn Hitchcock will turn 62, an age that adds a pebble to the mountain of evidence that he is a classic English eccentric.
He started publicly amassing that evidence in the mid-1970s, when one of his bands turned into the Soft Boys and, in the process of issuing albums like 1980’s Underwater Moonlight and singles like 1978’s “(I Want to Be an) Anglepoise Lamp,” influenced the quirks of countless future college, alternative, and underground rockers.
Fellow Soft Boys alumni accompanied Hitchcock on later reunions and other adventures: some played on his first solo full-length, 1981’s Black Snake Diamond Role, and in his next band, the Egyptians, although Hitchcock mostly kept his name, voice, and songwriting up front.
The voice—spindly and charming—has channeled much of Hitchcock’s songwriting into the hedgerows and villages of English whimsy, albeit with a plainer, blunter connection to the epicurean and the erotic than the usual English eccentric might allow himself. (A 2007 documentary about Hitchcock was subtitled Sex, Food, Death…and Insects.)
Unlike, say, Lewis Carroll or Syd Barrett, the Pink Floyd co-founder sidelined by drugs and erratic behavior, Hitchcock appreciates company on some fanciful flights: Nick Lowe, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and the alt-country double act Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are some of his collaborators, as are R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and other compatriots in the Venus 3.
His seventh decade has thus far yielded the pleasurably minor isolation of 2013’s Love From London and 2014’s The Man Upstairs, the former a pop-rock elaboration on a bedroom recording and the latter a mixed sack of covers and originals supervised by folk-rock producer extraordinaire Joe Boyd, whose tastefulness is evident on this version of a Roxy Music seduction:
Live and in solo-acoustic mode, Hitchcock can draw upon the entire catalog of major and minor songs, of signature idiosyncrasies and happenstance digressions, along with a gift for banter nearly as famous, among his fanbase, as his music. Expect the eccentric.
Wednesday, February 25: The Growlers at Cactus Club
“There’s nothing as depressing as good advice,” Brooks Nielsen sings near the halfway mark of the latest Growlers album, 2014’s Chinese Fountain. It’s a tart and true fortune-cookie message on a record stuffed with them, although the musical cookies have better flavor than their restaurant equivalents.
The Costa Mesa, California guys in the band might strike you as being what the Strokes stopped being after their first album: garage-rock addicts capable of playing dumb with their sonic sneers yet loath to treat audiences as if they can’t get the joke.
Thursday, February 26: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin with the Guilty Ones at Shank Hall
Perhaps the sibling relationship between Dave and Phil Alvin was never quite as contentious as the one between Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis. Nevertheless, until last year the two hadn’t recorded a full studio album with each other since 1985’s Hard Line, the final LP from the best-loved lineup of the Blasters, the band they had both started and that Dave left in 1986.
Considering how the Alvins made the Blasters, and themselves, standard-bearers for downhome American music, it’s appropriate they got back together on Common Ground to play the songs of renowned bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. Onstage, they’re likely to revisit a wider swath of common ground while agreeably negotiating Broonzy’s various masterpieces.
Friday, February 27: Scott Wooldridge Trio at Shank Hall
Milwaukeeans older than Ariana Grande (noted below) might recall Scott Wooldridge as frontman of the Squares and a member of the still-extant Wooldridge Brothers. In the last decade, he’s been working and living in Minneapolis, which offers an undeniably larger, if not necessarily more fertile or more welcoming, music scene.
Very recently, he put out his self-titled debut solo LP, a sturdily traditional step further along his singer-songwriter path. Using mainly acoustic instrumentation, Wooldridge gets closer to the songs and lets his worn feelings and vocals reveal themselves simply against an austere backdrop.
Saturday, February 28: Ariana Grande at BMO Harris Bradley Center
Among 21st-century female pop stars, only Adele has the pipes to outdo Ariana Grande. If Grande has the contemporary edge, it’s because she doesn’t seem to have listened to any music made before 1993, the year she was born: the Nickelodeon veteran’s first album, 2013’s Yours Truly, was constructed from a blueprint all but autographed by Mariah Carey.
The follow-up, 2014’s My Everything, moved her past Carey comparisons and toward the multiple producers, branded guest stars, and of-the-moment styles that define a diva intent on making an indelible commercial mark. (See also: Katy Perry, Rihanna, Britney Spears.) It took Grande to the top of the charts and gave her more Top Ten singles than anyone else scored last year.
Sunday, March 1: Moon Duo at Cactus Club
If I wanted to get literal-minded about band names, I would point out that Moon Duo is sometimes a trio, because Sanae Yamada and Wooden Shijps’ [sic] Ripley Johnson have added an auxiliary drummer, John Jeffrey. Plus, while the moon is basically unchanging, Moon Duo seeks change, having moved from San Francisco to Colorado and then on to Portland.
But I don’t want to get literal-minded, so: in March, Moon Duo will issue its latest LP, Shadow of the Sun, a 43-minute exploration of uneasy psychedelic rock that would have affinities to surf music if surfers could hover an inch above any waves rushing at them and churn those waves with their minds.