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All photos by Sammy Braxton-Haney
Robyn Hitchcock has long talked about the influence Syd Barrett has had on his songwriting, and on January 6th at The Chapel in San Francisco, at the start of his tribute to Barrett, Hitchcock intoned that while he did not write any of the songs he was about to play (all Barrett’s), he said instead that “they wrote me”. On the anniversary of what would have been Syd Barrett’s 77th birthday, Hitchcock proceeded to play a set of Barrett’s songs from his days fronting Pink Floyd as well as a solo artist.
The first five numbers featured Hitchcock on acoustic guitar, unaccompanied, and the intimacy at times was so poignant that you could see the through line from Syd to Robyn very clearly. This was best illustrated with his rendering of “Dark Globe”; the lines “won’t you miss me/wouldn’t you miss me at all” sounding like the desperate questions they have always been. From this part of the set, “Late Night” and “Jugband Blues” were also standouts.
Following his acoustic opening, Hitchcock was joined (one by one) by other performers. The first to come to the stage was a keyboard player simply called Rusty. The two did a low and lumbering version of “Long Gone” from the 1970 Syd Barret album, The Madcap Laughs. Local music stalwart Kelly Stoltz strolled on next and, perched behind a drum set, proceeded to give some welcome gravitas to “Wined and Dined” and the energy in the room kicked up a notch. Bassist Peter Strauss came on last and, suddenly, in the wash of the Mad Alchemy Liquid‘s psychedelic light show, it was 1967 at the UFO club in London and Pink Floyd are on stage playing “Chapter 24”. Heady stuff indeed, and it reminded the audience that both Barrett and Hitchcock could be quite brilliant guitarists when the moment was upon them. “Bike” followed, which got the audience singing along in an almost “knees up” fashion.
During the break, it was a good time to survey the crowd and, happily, there was a wide range of ages represented. While large chunks of the younger audience seemed not to be familiar with the songs, they were enjoying themselves nonetheless up close to the stage, while the elder side of the audience equation hung out in the back of the hall.
After the break came the one-two punch of “Astronomy Domine” and “Lucifer Sam”. With electric guitar to the fore, Robyn Hitchcock was in his element, steering a course through late 60’s psychedelic rock. The evening never got to be a self-aggrandizing spectacle; instead, it was a heartfelt homage to a genius songwriter that Robyn Hitchcock clearly adored, and his energy on the Barrett rockers was lapped up by the audience. Before playing “See Emily Play”, Hitchcock commented that “this was the hit that put Syd over the edge” and by all accounts, it did seem that Barrett’s life changed irrecoverably after Pink Floyd experienced their first flush of popularity with Emily.
Toward the end of the evening, some of the arrangements got a little rough around the edges; even so, “Gigolo Aunt”, “Baby Lemonade”, and “Octopus” were ragged but right, before the closer, “Arnold Layne” brought the energy back up. The encore was, of course, “Interstellar Overdrive”, and sent the audience home giddy with excitement. While not shying away from talking about the difficulties that Syd Barret faced, when viewed through the lens of Robyn Hitchcock, it all seemed palatable and that is down to the evident adoration he has for Barrett’s genius.