Robyn Hitchcock And The Venus 3, Islington Academy, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

He seems a lovely bloke, Robyn Hitchcock, and he's got some tremendous songs - warm and witty and very English, with echoes of early Bowie, Steve Harley and Marc Bolan. We know where he's coming from, and we like it. It's just a shame that someone didn't tell him to go easy on the inter-song rambling when he took the stage at the Islington Academy, the halfway point of a 12-date British tour that precedes a visit to the States in the second half of March.

At times Hitchcock sounded like a panellist on Just a Minute, and rather less funny. Torrents of whimsy poured forth on subjects as diverse as the Tufty Club and Diana, Princess of Wales's "assassination", and the audience shifted uncomfortably, waiting for the moment when Hitchcock and his band launched into their next number.

But what didn't work as stand-up somehow translated very successfully into music. Take "Ole Tarantula", the title track of his latest album, an anthemic and irresistibly catchy piece about extremely large spiders that really took off with the addition of trombone and sax to the two guitars and drums that make up the Venus 3.

One of those guitars belonged to the unobtrusive but brilliant Peter Buck, better known for his work with REM. It was a joy to hear him play, never more so than when he picked up his 12-string to bring a Byrds-like dreaminess to the title track of Hitchcock's 1999 album Jewels in Sophia.

Hitchcock - the one-time Soft Boy - is nearly 54. He's been in bands for more than 30 years. Lean and louche, he still has a full head of floppy blond hair, which he makes much of with frequent, girlish tosses of the head, of a kind not seen since the mid-Sixties.

His voice is wonderful - appealingly nasal in a John Lennon kind of way, and capable of both great lightness and great depth. He's brimful of ideas, energy and humour, and when, mid-encore, he prefaces a song with an uncharacteristically brief announcement that this is "the best song ever", you're fascinated to know what might come next.

Ah, yes. "See Emily Play". A boisterous version it is, too, and if anyone is worthy of jumping on the Syd Barrett bandwagon, then it's Hitchcock.

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