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A review of...
Badly Drawn Boy live at The Sage, Gateshead
Badly Drawn Boy is back. It's been five long years since his last album It's What I'm Thinking Part 1: Photographing Snowflakes, which hinted that it was the start of a quick fire run of new albums, but the sequels never materialised and a soundtrack he did called Being Flynn for a Robert DeNiro film never got a UK release. But after a bit of quiet time/soul searching he's here to perform his Mercury Prize winning debut album, in full. As he enters the stage with a new band of young bearded musicians he deadpans "I hate this album. Its too long". It's a typical quip from the always self-depreciating Damon Gough, but it's one that puts me instantly at ease. He seems to be in good spirits, which always bodes well. The last time I saw Badly Drawn Boy was in Scarborough in 2010. He played all the oldies at the start of the gig, had an interval and then played his very personal (and very good) new material to an under-appreciative crowd which created and awkward atmosphere and an air of audience ambivalence. He talked about "jacking it all in", but this time, there was no deadpan, and no knowing smile. He seemed deadly serious. I wasn't really surprised that he'd taken a rather long break from the limelight after that tour, since then he's spoken candidly about his depression and the general frustration that caused those sort of outbursts. I was surprised, however, to hear that he would be going back to perform his debut album in full. Gough always seemed to be a man moving forwards, but as he explains tonight, he wanted to "give something back" to the fans who've stuck by him over the years, and maybe make amends for those wilderness years. I'm sure the fact that these gigs were guaranteed to sell out didn't do any harm, but you get the feeling that Gough is genuine in that fan pleasing sentiment.
The gig is split into two acts, in the first part, he rattles through The Hour of Bewilderbeast with a new found energy and vigor. "Once Around The Block" sounds spectacular, "Pissing In The Wind" makes grown men well up, and "Magic In The Air" is just wonderful (as it always has been). The short interludes are also included, some getting major 2015 overhauls. It's definitely the most competent performance I've seen from him and you can tell that these songs have really been rehearsed to into the ground, which is in contrast to some of his previous tours that have been a bit more improvisational/unpredictable. Both have their merits. Passing baby photos around the audience during rambling epic sets, learning how to use loop pedals in front of a live audience - he still doesn't seem totally happy with this aspect of his live game by the way - and generally messing things up - vs - a well honed, audibly stunning performance, with little in the way of surprises (pre-interval).
After a long booze break he walks back on stage alone, engages in some very funny chat with the audience and dives into "A Minor Incident", attempts "Above You, Below Me", gives up after about 6 notes and all of a sudden Gough looks like he's a bit lost on stage. Some kind soul helps him out by shouting "Shake The Rollercoaster" which gets him back on track. Gough admits it's an oldie (from 1997's EP1) which he hasn't played for ages, but he plays it like he wrote it only yesterday and it's incredible. Then he gets the full band back on stage for a veritable smorgasbord of big hits and fan favourites. There a sublime "You Were Right" which has been transformed into an anthemic E-Street band rock behemoth. "Born In The UK" has also been tweaked into some sort of Roxy Music rock'n'roll pomp-fest, far superior to any other version I've heard before. The gig is topped off with a cover of his idol Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" and he finally relents and rewards the audience for their constant shouts for "Silent Sigh".
It's both interesting and heartening to hear Gough - getting serious for a moment - say that he doesn't want to dwell on this record after this run of gigs (and a forthcoming re-issue). He seems keener than ever to get a new album out (although he openly admits that he's been saying that for years). Hopefully these gigs, and this youthful and talented band, will be the confidence boost Gough needs to get that new material out of his head and into the real world, where it belongs.