The Soft Boys, Temple Bar Music Centre, Dublin, 22nd January 2003Music has become unashamedly retro of late. On one hand, you have the likes of The Thrills, all born neither in the '60s nor in California, trying to recall the sound of California in the '60s. Then there's these punk wannabes - The Strokes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, all swagger and attitude and second-hand chic. The music made by these groups is far from bad (apart from the current rock revival, where bands like The Datsuns and the D4 make a load of old noise and try to pass it off as talent), but it's hardly very original.
Support act Stephen Hero AKA Patrick Gallagher has been at this music thing for a while, if his visible age is anything to go by. His songs are reminiscent of Ben Folds Five or The Whitlams, but, of course, he was probably doing this long before they were. Sitting at a Yamaha, he asks us whether we would like a song about love or hell. "Hell!" comes the unanimous reply. However, what he plays could be no less beautiful than the "love" option he had in store. Hero is a gracious presence - the small crowd is exceptionally quiet, almost shy in fact, but he make jokes and dedicates songs to various people, such as the guy who fixes his broken string. His last song (name escapes me) sounds great - all fuzzy electric guitar and looped vocal.
Minutes later, a lanky guy with floppy grey hair walks onstage followed by his band. They get a warm cheer from the gathering of devoted fans, many of whom are getting a bit grey in the hair and podgy in the belly themselves.
While the rest of the world is running retro rings around itself, The Soft Boys have stayed glued to the spot. The members have changed over the years (though tonight it's back to the original 1976 line-up), but the music has stayed the same. The band kicks straight into 'I Love Lucy', the instrumental opener from their current album, "Nextdoorland". It's a groovy Dick Dale style number, the leading line of which trips off Robyn Hitchcock's guitar with such ease, you would think he was playing in his sleep.
The craggy-looking singer-songwriter cuts an interesting figure at centre stage. Wearing a colourful shirt, he displays a sense of humour so dry it could sand down a sideboard. He reminds me of Julian Cope, who was in town last year. Both are British, are of a similar age and continue to make sweet melodic guitar pop, despite being largely obscure for most of their respective careers. However, while Cope displayed plain weirdness at his Vicar Street show (crawling on the floor among the audience while talking gibberish, worshipping a guitar onstage), Hitchcock is altogether more articulate and intelligent.
To his left, lead guitarist Kimberly Rew grins like he's just escaped the funny farm, nicely offsetting Hitchcock's lack of facial expression. This could be interpreted as rudeness was it not for the fact that he speaks to the audience so much. No, instead, it's a look of concentration, occasionally mixed up with some intense blinking. Behind him bass player Morris Windsor and drummer Matthew Seligman look less strange, but allow themselves the occasional smile at Hitchcock's quick-fire witticisms.
Between songs he tells us about his cat, how drinking Guinness from a bottle is wrong - like drinking a biro (you had to be there), how he reckons the old tramlines in Dublin are connected to some kind of higher energy force, and makes references to drippy New Romantics Spandau Ballet: "they did everything better than us", he says, surely not without irony. During 'Underwater moonlight', title track of their 1980 album, he conducts a mock trial of George Walker Bush. "Mr Bush - you are indicted on the grounds of being an eco-terrorist... and a fucking idiot!" which is met with rapturous applause. (He also dedicates 'I wanna destroy you' to the US President).
But, the politics and the stand-up comedy aside, what of the music? Well, as jangly guitar pop goes, it doesn't get much better than this. It's easy to hear how they have influenced bands such as REM, indeed, Peter Buck played with Hitchcok for a while. The Soft Boys' sound goes from sunny and sweet, 'Sudden town' to sprawling and atmospheric, 'Mr Kennedy', to spiky and rocking, 'Insanely jealous'.
The current crop of fresh-faced garage bands could learn a lot from these old geezers...