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Live review: Robyn Hitchcock's 'I Often Dream of Trains' at Largo at the Coronet

November 14, 2008 | 11:44 am

Alicia_j_rose_hitchcock_2 A number of musicians have been delving into performances of albums that have defined their oeuvre -- consider the concerts devoted to Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds,” Lou Reed’s “Berlin” and, most recently, Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.” Thursday night, at Largo at the Coronet, as part of a modest eight-city tour, Robyn Hitchcock revisited his 1984 record “I Often Dream of Trains.”

It was his third post-Soft Boys album, and it crystallized the singer’s sound in an indie-rock talisman that is often regarded as his best solo work. Hitchcock described the recording, which was reissued last year on Yep Roc -- and included on the five-CD box set “I Wanna Go Backwards” -- to the Largo audience as a “private album.”

Hitchcock appeared onstage as his “Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl” was already playing, its sound coming from an audio recorder placed atop a piano. Snapping off the machine -- and dispensing with that song -- he then plinked out the album’s introductory “Nocturne.”

His spare acoustic songs were accompanied by Terry Edwards on keyboards and horns (attired in what the singer dubbed his “special branch” wardrobe) and “captain Tim Keegan on guitar. Edwards and Keegan also joined Hitchcock in a bravura barbershop quartet-esque rendition of the jauntily psychoanalytic ditty “Uncorrected Personality Traits.”

Songs like “Cathedral,” “Sounds Great When You’re Dead” and “Flavour of Night” offered beautifully autumnal and ethereal musings on memory, mortality, desire and decay. Hitchcock delivered a rousing round-the-campfire sermon in “Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus” and frolicked amid imminent ruins in “My Favorite Buildings.”

“Trams of Old London” and the title track carried listeners into reveries strung together with the names of railway lines and stations, delivering them beyond destinations found on any maps or timetables. Before closing with the album’s eponymous song, the singer invited the audience to imagine the song sung by the voice of a ghost.

Such an excursion through “I Often Dream of Trains” would have been sufficient for a thoroughly unforgettable evening, but a whole other show emerged when Grant-Lee Phillips (who sang on two songs in the “Trains” set), Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Jon Brion took to the stage for a spirited jam session, complete with song-selection huddles.

The encore included the cathode-ray serenade “Television” (from 2004's "Spooked") and songs by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Grateful Dead and, in tribute to recently deceased drummer Mitch Mitchell, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The singer also regaled the audience throughout the night with repartee that, like his songs, was suffused with surrealist sagacity and a real feeling of retrospection. “As you get older,” Hitchcock affirmed, after one gloriously digressive bit of badinage, “a preoccupation with truth becomes more essential.”

-- Anthony Miller

Photo: Alicia J. Rose, courtesy Yep Roc