[28 November 2002]
There are certain things you come to expect at a rock and roll concert. Chances are, the band is going to mention that your hometown is their absolute favorite place in the whole wide world to play in and that the fans are the best. You know that at the end of the show, no matter how hard everyone claps, there’s going to be an encore. Then there are the minor details you take for granted. For example, the notion that someone affiliated with the band will conduct a sound check before the show. Or that a group rehearses the songs they plan on performing, so the numbers can be finished instead of petering out in the middle. With this in mind, let me introduce Badly Drawn Boy, masters of the unexpected.
Badly Drawn Boy is, for all intents and purposes, a vaguely hobbit-like Englishman named Damon Gough. Gough writes the music and lyrics, sings, plays the guitar and keyboard at shows. To his credit, the songs that Gough weaves together are wonderful patchwork quilts of emotion. His folky brand of pop grows on just about everyone who listens to it.
Onstage, Gough was joined by a bassist, drummer, keyboardist, and rhythm guitarist. But the other musicians received not so much as a friendly nod, let alone introduction before or after the performance. In some ways, Gough seemed to be up there alone. The behavior served to reinforce Gough’s arrogant stage reputation.
What Gough did do was step before the audience with a filled plastic cup sloshing around in each hand, and a pack of cigarettes that would barely last him through his first set. Dressed in his signature knit cap and a black t-shirt with some kind of sequined design stitched into it, Gough welcomed the audience to the Fillmore. Behind Gough hung a mural with a blown-up version of the cover of his latest album, Have You Fed the Fish?. He informed the audience that the album went on sale that very day, and while he didn’t expect that any of us owned it yet, we should add it to our record collections as soon as possible.
With that, he and the band launched into “40 Days, 40 Fights”, which Gough said “was written after spending 40 days in a hotel in Los Angeles, which was a lot like being in purgatory.” The song sort of flops around, supported by high organ chords and a waltz-like rhythm on the drums. But before the band made it to the first chorus, Gough began frantically waving his hands at his bandmates to cut it out. Apparently he was upset with the almost non-existent vocals coming through his monitor. He asked the engineer on the soundboard to turn his microphone up, stating sarcastically that, “I can sing the song.” He then quickly informed the audience that the band was performing an experiment that night. They had skipped sound check as a time saving device. We were now reaping the benefits. After starting and stopping the song once more, they nailed it on the third try. To their credit, it’s a good tune with the type of catchy hook that Gough seems to be able to produce at will.
From there, Badly Drawn Boy played through many of the songs off the soundtrack to the Hugh Grant film About A Boy. Nick Hornby, the author of the pop-British novel upon which the film is based, personally selected Gough to score the screen version. The soundtrack is arguably the best of the year. On it, Gough utilizes the impressive catalog of musical styles and sounds bouncing around in his head to create a collage of songs and instrumentals that are poignant without being corny. It’s a soundtrack that can be listened to and appreciated without having ever read the book or seen the movie.
“A Peak You Can Reach”, taken from the soundtrack, combined Gough’s scat singing with a marauding start and stop guitar riff. Meanwhile, “Above You, Below Me” was high-energy baroque chamber music, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. But as soon as members of the audience began nodding their heads a little bit and shuffling their feet, Gough cut the song and moved on to the next. So he never really gave himself the chance to gain any momentum.
Finally, after 10 lopsided songs, Gough announced that the band was going to leave the stage and regroup. But before leaving, he wanted to sing for us one of his favorite songs of all time. The rest of his band sat cross-legged on stage as Gough walked back to his Roland keyboard, and punched out a gorgeous rendition of the Fifth Dimension’s “Let the Sunshine In”. With that, Gough crumpled his now-empty pack of cigarettes and left the stage with the rest of the band.
You could see engineers working desperately at the soundboard during the intermission, while crew members tuned guitars on stage. Meanwhile, about half of the audience left, not sure the second half would be any better than the first.
Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for those of us who stayed, it was. Gough walked back into our arms with his band, as promised, after ten minutes, and apologized for the first set. He told us that it wasn’t our fault—that he was feeling muddled. He missed his children back home in England, the sound check experiment was an absolute failure, and his fingers were bleeding. But he said he intended to turn the show around. For most of the second set, that’s more or less what he did, offering up inspired guitar solos and a band that had somehow gelled during its ten minute respite from the stage
Gough reopened the show with a fresh pack of cigarettes and the crowd-pleaser “The Shining”, off of his first album The Hour of Bewilderbeast. The song, which Gough says was inspired after seeing his newborn for the first time, stirs up a pot full of emotion with the french horn and cello that open the song before the first lyrics are even spoken. What was left of the sterile crowd cheered for what was now their returning hero. Damon Gough, in turn, desperately thanked us. It’s as close as I’ve ever seen to a codependent relationship at a live concert event.
Many of Gough’s songs have a simple quality about them. Perhaps that’s why they’re so endearing. You can almost see him sitting there, buried under his knit hat on his stool in a pub drinking a bitter, and trying to think of a line that rhymes with “but I’m still in love with you”. His songs lull you into a false sense of security that way. But he sings it all with so much raw emotion, you want to take him home and feed him a bowl of soup.
Rather than walking off stage and returning for the encore, Gough offered the show’s coda without ending the set, repeatedly telling the audience that each tune was the last of the evening. “How”, off of Have You Fed the Fish?, was beautifully executed with an amazing amount of positive feeling considering how the show had gone for the band. The song begins with Gough singing alone with his acoustic guitar, and cascades into a tidal wave of drums and strings (here provided by the handy Roland keyboard) that’s reminiscent of Phil Spector’s finest wall-of-sound work. “Disillusion”, from Hour of Bewilderbeast, and “The Further I Slide”, from the new album, followed. If the entire show had been as tight as these three numbers, it would have been an impressive night for Badly Drawn Boy. Perhaps Gough sensed this, which might help explain how the concert ended.
Gough dedicated what was to be the night’s final song to opening act singer Adam Green. Then he began singing “Pissing in the Wind”, a lolling ballad off of Hour of Bewilderbeast. The song’s desperation built up slowly, until Gough moved onto the chorus, repeating over and over again “Just give it something/I’ll take nothing.” The crowd swayed slowly like a giant hammock, enthralled with the moment. The rapport between audience and singer might have lasted for two or three minutes. It’s hard to say. But something caught Gough’s attention, and he became angry. With a violence no one suspected was possible, he threw his guitar down, and smacked the microphone from its stand with an open handed slap. It flew a good ten feet across the stage, its whip-like cord waving behind. You could hear from the feedback provided by the speakers that it struck something near the front of the stage with great force. It seemed inevitable that some fan now lay bleeding and in need of medical attention. Meanwhile, Gough stormed off stage. For a few moments no one knew what to do.
But then, inexplicably, a member of the audience grabbed the microphone and began singing. At first it was quiet, but soon it became louder: “Just give it something/I’ll take nothing”. Over and over again, the warbled voice competed with our laughter. Gough looked on from the balcony overlooking the stage, near the band’s private entrance, and smoked another cigarette. The fan kept singing, and the band played on with him. It sounded perfect.