“Music can be fun,” Robyn Hitchcock reminded the sold-out aud at the first of this three-night run of shows at Largo, “but it doesn’t have to be.”
That self-evident conclusion seems to have been a hard-earned lesson for Hitchcock. About a decade ago, his concerts felt like desperate attempts at fun. With a rabid cult ready to laugh at any non sequitur that fell from his lips, the psychedelic punk milkshake he whipped up with the Soft Boys — a dizzying mixture of absurdist, Dylan-styled wordplay and Pythonesque whimsy set to soaring melodic guitars that drew equally from the Byrds and the Beatles, the Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd — curdled into an unappetizing draft. Shrugged-off references to cheeses and fish were dropped in for easy laughs. One left his mid-’90s shows unsure where his contempt was aimed: at himself for being so lazy, or at his fans for letting him get away with it.
But a Soft Boys reunion in 2002 and his new album, “Spooked” (Yep Roc) — recorded with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, it’s his best album since 1984’s “I Often Dream of Trains” — have revitalized his talents, and Tuesday night’s show was exemplary, serious fun.
While the setlist was request generated (although it’s hard to tell how serious to take that, as some of the songs were exceedingly obscure), the first of the evening’s two sets was very much of a piece with the elegiac mood of “Spooked.” “My Favorite Buildings,” he sang, “are all laid to waste”; in “Flanagan’s Song,” the “party’s over/The bells are ringing themselves/I’m going home.” There was also a seriousness to his between-song commentary. He can still joke that Los Angeles is the “hypothalamus of show business,” and go off on long tangents about mice and guitar tuning, but he followed “Creeped Out” by saying that the government gives you a choice: “You can go to hell through hypocrisy or through the triumph of blind imperial faith and the madness of thousands.”
After a short break (and a switch from coffee to wine), the second set lightened things up. Mostly covers, performed with guest Jon Brion and Winston Watson on drums, they ranged from “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” to the Velvet Underground’s “New Age,” Dylan’s “(Sooner or Later) One of Us Must Know” and George Harrison’s “Be Here Now.”
Hitchcock plays Brooklyn’s Southpaw March 25.