Robyn Hitchcock carried a cup of tea onstage to start his sold-out Sunday night solo show at Caffé Lena, an intimate setting that showcased the English singer-songwriter’s brilliant poetic-creative side and dark gallows humor.
Wearing a navy-blue shirt adorned with a rose-colored floral pattern, the 66-year-old started the two-set show with a “folk module,” a fitting start for one of the country’s most storied folk venues. It was nice to see such a packed turnout for the unconventional songwriter, who has played in the region various times but never in Saratoga Springs.
A few notes of plaintive harmonica kicked off the opener, “Man with a Woman’s Shadow,” a noir-ish sounding dark-folk tune from 1996 that slinked and creeped like an intruder in the night. Hitchcock followed with a straight version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan, an artist he’s covered for years and cites as a heavy influence.
“Take Off Your Bandages,” the indelibly catchy B-side from a new 7” single, followed. Although the song, recorded in Nashville (where Hitchcock lives these days), alluded to Hitchcock’s typically grim view of humanity, it ended on a hopeful note.
“Our species encourages the worst to reach the top, which is why we’re doomed,” he said to some laughter after “I Wanna Destroy You,” the dagger-sharp classic from Hitchcock’s psychedelia-inspired postpunk group the Soft Boys. He dedicated the song, about the destructive nature of humanity, to Donald Trump, tweaking the lyrics to include a pox on Fox media.
“Sinister but She Was Happy,” from Hitchcock’s 1996 album “Moss Elixer,” echoed again the darker side of human nature, and he followed with “I Want to Tell You What I Want,” the first track from his latest album (self-titled, even though it’s his 21st). The latter song is about hope for a world with more empathy.
Despite the threads of bleakness that weave through most songs, it’s hard to exaggerate what a pleasure Hitchcock is to watch perform; he always comes across as witty and wildly creative onstage.
“This is a song I must have written about capitalism. It’s made me a lot of money,” he quipped before “Balloon Man,” one of Hitchcock’s best-known tunes, a college radio and MTV hit in the 1980s with his group the Egyptians. It’s also a pretty bizarre tune, lyrically.
After an intermission, after which it was announced that Caffé Lena had just won an Eddie Award for best small venue during an awards ceremony at Proctors, Hitchcock returned for a second set.
He started at the piano for “Flavour of Night,” “Somewhere Apart,” “Ted, Woody and Junior” and the brilliant “Those Guys Are All Dead Now.” Switching to guitar, he closed out the second set with a stunning “Madonna of the Wasps,” an unofficial British national anthem “Dismal City,” the ethereal “Element of Light,” Soft Boys cover “Queen of Eyes,” and the beautiful 1981 tune “Love.”