BADLY DRAWN BOY at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Friday (April 27). $15. 416-466-0313. Rating: NNNNN
since creating the badly drawn
Boy alter-ego as a fun-loving nutter who'll say just about anything to the press for a larf, Damon Gough has had some difficulty being taken seriously as a singer/songwriter. Perceptions changed slightly when he upset odds-on favourite Coldplay in the Mercury Prize runoff, although his insistence on wearing a woolly tea cozy for a hat hasn't assured anyone of his sanity.
And then there's the matter of the Badly Drawn Boy anything-can-happen performance concept, where songs end abruptly mid-verse and fan faves are regularly twisted into confounding new shapes on the spot.
Whenever the mood takes him, he'll cut up with 15 side-splitting minutes of a punchy Liam Gallagher or sincerely profess his undying admiration for the artistry of Bruce Springsteen, to loud sniggering all around.
It's only when you talk to Gough one-on-one, with the cozy off, that you realize the Badly Drawn Boy thing isn't entirely a put-on. The frequent song revisions and rambling three-hour exhibitions actually make sense.
"From the time I first heard Springsteen's Thunder Road, I was on a mission to find every possible outtake from the Born To Run album sessions and live recordings from the period," confides Gough on a cellular while kicking a soccer ball outside his London flat.
"To my amazement, each version of Thunder Road was different -- the arrangements changed, the title changed and even the girl's name in the first line was always different. And that approach was true of the entire Born To Run album. That redefined for me what songwriting is all about -- it's a fluid thing.
"Most artists aim for a definitive version of a song. That's fine in the studio, but performing live there's always a new way of doing things, which might turn out better. You don't know until you try."
While Gough is determined to continue taking risks in performance, his highwire routine is now performed with a safety net of skilled musicians -- namely Easterhouse drummer David Verner, Audioweb bassist Sean McCann and guitarist Robin Fyle, along with keyboardist Matt Wardle -- who can help keep him from falling flat on his face.
"In the past, the only way I ever knew of surviving a gig was to act like an idiot. I'm controlling myself a bit more now to get rid of the "shambolic' tag, but I still ramble on, and the songs might be longer or shorter depending on how I feel on a certain night.
"You can play everyone's favourites exactly like the album, but that doesn't make for an experience that stays with people after the gig is over. The most important stuff is what goes on outside the songs -- the X factor, that bit where I don't know what's gonna happen next.
"That's where the fear of failing comes in, but it's all part of the excitement of performing. If the thought of going on each night didn't make me nervous, I probably wouldn't bother doing it."