The Soft Boys were perhaps the most original band to emerge from Britain in the late ’70s, joining acid wit and pop savvy into a surreal noise that answered Johnny Rotten’s “God Save the Queen” with a cocked eyebrow and a half-smirked “Hello, Dali.”
Since the quartet’s 1980 split, frontman Robyn Hitchcock has pursued a similar path as a solo artist, with reclusive guitarist Kimberley Rew taking a more polished route, highlighted by a stint as prime mover in Katrina and the Waves. Long the subject of less-than-believable reunion rumors, the band just opened a quick tour in support of Matador’s enhanced reissue of its classic 1980 album Underwater Moonlight — and at least on this night, the Soft Boys proved admirably damaged after all these years.
Early on in the second perf of that Stateside jaunt, Hitchcock held down a spot at center stage with all the interest of a tollbooth operator, waving through the occasional interesting riff or line on songs like “Tonight” while keeping an eye on the clock. Impelled in part by Rew’s increasingly urgent guitar jabs, he snapped out of it for appropriately gristly renditions of “Old Pervert” and “Insanely Jealous.”
Mostly, the quartet steered clear of its thornier material, concentrating on the more harmony-driven, glossy psychedelia of songs like “Element of Light” and a breezy rendition of “Bells of Rhymney.” That wasn’t such a bad thing, given drummer Morris Windsor’s surprisingly wispy backing vocals and Hitchcock’s own lithe, airy delivery.
But when Hitchcock and Rew did decide to mix it up a bit more — as on a lurching version of the still-inscrutable “Leppo and the Jooves” — the spark grew palpably brighter. That held true on both conventionally driving tunes (like a powerful “I Wanna Destroy You”) and more off-the-wall constructions, such as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Toilet,” a scathing rejoinder to old-school rock romanticism.
Things loosened up considerably during a pair of extended encores. The second kicked off with openers the Young Fresh Fellows skulking onto the darkened stage to deliver a ferocious stomp through the anthemic “Give It to the Soft Boys” — a 1978 Soft Boys tune. The bands teamed up for an all-hands-on-deck “Queen of Eyes” that spiraled up, up and away, ending the evening on an ethereally high note.
The Soft Boys play the Knitting Factory in Los Angeles on April 10.