[18 December 2003]
Live music is almost always a worthwhile venture. Even a bad show can have its merits: hey, you went out, saw a show, mingled, heard someone dispense their poetry and music—however shoddy—and hopefully learned something about… well… how bad music can happen to good people or maybe how bad musical tastes reflect the artist’s own laughable character, whereupon you can cruelly pick apart exactly why this is so. Or, in a more compassionate moment, you might at least marvel at the gumption the performer mustered in order to get up there and take a giant leap of faith into the barracuda-infested waters of a concert venue—hundreds of eyeballs glued to your every move, gesture, strum and utterance. Holding up against such scrutiny is unfathomable to me, which is why I reside safely in my critic’s perch, like the geriatric grouches from the Muppet Show, and which is also why I deeply respect anyone who at least tries to give it what they’ve got, even if “it” is a pathetic pile of sentimental dung suitable only for a personal diary or an eighth grade love letter. That said, however, we must also recognize that some people express themselves far better than others and it is not only the heart that went into the music but the right combination of heart and talent that make for something truly good. Badly Drawn Boy (a.k.a. Damon Gough) embodies the live music ideal: his lyrics are confessional but not ordinary, he is a skilled pop composer with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of different styles and he knows how to employ them all at just the right moments—what many might consider the wrong moments—but he manages to finesse continuity out of seemingly incongruous materials, all the while creating an atmosphere of conviviality with a presence so natural you’d think he’d sprouted right out from the wood of the stage.
On stage, musicians are at their most vulnerable, without the comfort of a studio and technicians to mix this or edit that, and the audience gets a chance to see what the artist is actually capable or incapable of. Great is the artist who excels in the studio, then transcends it all in person. Gough, however, is entirely his own entity, abiding by his own sets of rules; sounding spontaneous and ragged yet meticulous in his arrangements both live and on his recordings. His use of warped noises and the way he’ll incorporate them into a little acoustic song as if it were the most natural thing in the world recalls the bestest and weirdest of the Beatles—the album cut of “Epitaph”, from 2000’s The Hour of Bewilderbeast, even features tweeting birds in the background similar to “Black Bird” off the White Album—as well as the marvelous schizophrenia of Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything? and Harry Nilsson’s Son of Schmilsson. But Gough does them one better by somehow fitting all the pieces together so as to produce music suitable for almost anybody, not just cognoscenti nerds. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to turn my friends onto Todd Rundgren only to have them begin to doubt my musical authority: “But it’s really good if you just listen carefully”—it’s never any use. Gough’s music, however, seems never to require any goading. People take to it immediately, which, considering the absolute anomaly that is his particular brand of pop composition, is an admirable feat.
So when Gough came on stage with Neil Young’s cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind” wafting out of the house speakers, looking ever the disheveled Muppet himself with his scruffy face and knit hat pulled down over his eyebrows, and proceeded to belt out a calypso-ish rendition of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”, it was clear this would be a fully unpredictable evening of music.
Ubiquitous cigarette in hand, drinking beer (after beer, after beer), Gough stood in his self-imposed cloud, like an overgrown Pig Pen (of Peanuts fame) strumming his guitar or emerging from the cloud into another one slightly upstage where he would switch to piano. As the night drew on he became more and more irritated with the sound crew because his vocals were too low or what have you. But this merely cemented the notion that he is not just sloppily spewing out songs; the quality of his music is important to him, and considering how challenging it is to fuse a disco beat into an acoustic song or pull off any number of the other structural acrobatics he performs, his perfectionism is perfectly understandable. His grumpiness also added to the homey feel of the evening—sort of like the old uncle at the dinner table who’s “had better gravy at the nursing home”. It was as though Gough was singing simply because he was the family member who had brought the guitar and decided to give us all a show. Completing the picture were the snapshots of his kids that he passed around the crowd—he named his son Oscar Bruce, after Bruce Springsteen, his musical idol.
The sheer length of the performance (nearly three hours) allowed Gough to play most of his oeuvre, a crash course in Badly Drawn Boy, if you will. From the John Lennon-like “Magic in the Air”, with its far-away vocals and simple piano line, to the jumpy, electric guitar-driven dance tune “Disillusion”, Gough shows that his range is limitless, or rather his interests are strewn everywhere and he adjusts his range accordingly. A new, as-yet-untitled piece introduced as a Vince Guaraldi kind of tune—a delicate jazz piano instrumental—was as accurate a representation of Gough’s style as the raggedly acoustic cynicism of “Pissing in the Wind”. All the roads he travels have a very defined point of origin so no matter how far from the center his fancies lead him, there is always a visible guiding line leading straight back to his own, inescapable self, and is ultimately why his music never sounds insincere or forced.
Whether it’s the brief, Beastie Boys-style “Body Rap” instrumental, full of samples and record scratches, the Nick Drake-ish melancholy strumming and lush strings of “Stone on the Water”, or the ambling rock jams, the songs always sound like Badly Drawn Boy compositions. This kind of instantaneous recognition is what characterizes all the greatest musicians—Neil Young’s guitar is unmistakable after only a bar or two, likewise John Coltrane’s saxophone. Badly Drawn Boy may not be quite at that level yet, but he is certainly well on his way.