Friday, August 20, 2004

A Game of Two Halves - Badly Drawn Boy at the Royal Festival Hall

First of all I'm fucking pissed off. I have a spare ticket for this show that nobody seems to want - £21 down the toilet. I try and sell it to a tout, and am offered £3 for it. That's a total insult. For a start, a Badders gig is worth a hell of a lot more than that. Secondly, £3 won't even buy me a decent pint in a plush South Bank arts venue like this. Ho hum.

So I sit on my own, and read Richard Ford's wonderful novel The Sportswriter to pass the time whilst waiting for the support act. The support act shuffle on surreptitiously, looking somewhat uncomfortable, afraid that the venue might swallow them off. I think they are called Dukes but I didn't hear the announcement properly, and I have absolutely no prior knowledge of their music. They are surprisingly marvelous - crafting a rich and mysterious sound that is enthralling and entrancing. They benefit greatly from the presence of a female singing drummer, who is blessed with a voice with a distinctive timbre, full of alure and mystery. On stage, their posture was somewhat rigid, and as performers they remained steadfastly unengaging - but this may well have been the most appropriate approach for their languid, hypnotic sound.

After a remarkably efficient twenty minute turnaround, Badders shuffled towards centre stage and put both his fists in the air. Given the rather rabid critical reaction to new album One Plus One is One - he needs this to be a good performance. The gigs that followed 'Have You Fed The Fish' were fantastic fun, and genuine restorers of faith. He played two lengthy sets, with a perfectly judged balance of good tunes and arsing about. To be honest, I've never understood why critics have always reacted badly to these lengthy shows - with fine songwriting and genius comedy combined, Badders usually offers us more than value for money. Tonight proved to be a slightly more complex affair.

The first half of the show consists of the new album in sequence. He announces that they had played it all the previous night, and that he had disliked the experience so much that he vowed to do it all again, but with more success. I still find this a deeply unsatisfactory way to deliver a live performance, especially for an artist like Damon Gough, whose stage character is innately shambolic and unpredictable. Knowing exactly what is coming next is maddening, especially when most of the songs are delivered faithfully to the original script, even the endearingly brief instrumental interludes.

To be fair, it's immediately clear that this is one of the best live bands that Gough has assembled. Many critics reacted rabidly against the excessive use of flute in the new material, claiming it resembled Jethro Tull. What an unimaginative critical response! To my mind, the flute mostly adds extra colour (definitely a benefit in the new album's more drab moments) and represents a completely logical step from a songwriter clearly preoccupied as much with arrangement and mood as melody. Even more welcome is a deliciously lively and inventive rhythm section that helps to energise the material. This is particularly true in the case of 'Four Leaf Clover' - a song that sounds disappointingly flat in its recorded version - but is extended with enthusiastic abandon this evening.

Gough clearly cares deeply about this album. It is characteristically whimsical, with strong links to his family, his life in Manchester and his personal heritage. At times, it is genuinely touching - but occasionally it is more than a little bit icky ('Year of the Rat' sounds much less grating without the child's choir, but it remains steadfastly lightweight - one of his least engaging songs). Yet in spite of this personal emotional investment (or perhaps because of it), this performance is weighed down by the burden of seriousness. There are brief moments of fun - such as when the audience make him collapse with laughter over the into to 'Another Devil Dies' and he confesses he did exactly the same the previous night. Most of the set feels rigid and restrictive - a deliberate statement rather than a natural act. Whilst 'One Plus One is One' is a typically endearing collection of songs - it doesn't have the stature or coherence of a 'Forever Changes' or a 'Pet Sounds', and cannot withstand the full sequential treatment, especially in the somewhat cramped and stuffy atmosphere of the Festival Hall. The audience seem somewhat nonplussed and, really, who can blame them?

Of course, he redeems himself valiantly in the second half. He plays a ramshackle acoustic version of 'Once Around The Block' with the now traditional additional narrative at the beginning. The string section bring extra warmth to a sincere and affecting rendition of 'The Shining'. He plays B-Sides, and a couple of tracks from the early EPs with I must confess to never having heard before. There are also a generous number of tracks from 'Have You Fed The Fish', an album he defends by stating: 'It's not my LA album for fuck's sake - it's my being in LA wondering how everyone is back home album!'. There are positively groovy performances of 'Disillusion' and 'Silent Sigh' that at last get people shifting in their seats. And he pays homage to Bruce Springsteen by singing a gospel style monologue over the final track. 'Just bring it down a little', he instructs the band, before singing 'I never wanted to be here, I never wanted to be on the stage!'. Someone in the crowd shouts 'bollocks!' to which, Badders, always the master of the anti-heckle, retorts (in song) 'Don't say bollocks, I only speak the truth! I always wanted to be behind the scenes....but I ended up one of the most influential rock and roll stars of all time!'. It's a moment filled with good humour and fun, and a pleasing end to what, by its conclusion, has been an excellent evening.

No comments: