Badly Drawn Boy, Arts Theatre, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fivestar -->

Sketchy but brilliant Boy
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The Independent Culture

Anti-smokers, beware. Mel Smith may have given up cigars to play Churchill in Edinburgh, to placate the anti-smoking lobby, but Badly Drawn Boy will take a lot more persuading. Bolton's most effective one-man band got through at least a pack of 10 in an hour-and-a-half set. What Bruce Springsteen, always glowing with health, would make of it is anyone's guess, though one suspects he may not copy Damon Gough's fag-tossing tricks. At least The Boss could be chuffed about the tributes paid to him tonight by this long-avowed acolyte. The Killers may have a new-found devotion to Springsteen, and the folk diva Bat For Lashes may subvert "I'm On Fire", but it is Gough who has mastered the art of sincere songwriting.

Gough's admiration for Springsteen has been hard to spot on previous efforts, but this preview of the forthcoming Born In The UK album showed that The Boss has provided more in the way of inspiration than the title alone. Gough has binned the studio and stylistic tricks that were such a feature of his sublime debut, The Hour Of Bewilderbeast.

The title track in particular is a heads-down rocker, a number so good he plays it twice, the first time quietly and solo, followed immediately afterwards by the full-band version. There is time for improvisation, with the backing musicians barely keeping up with his requests, and signs of nerves as he is sidetracked by kind hecklers. Yet this is a more focused Gough than fans have seen previously: no rambling monologues - relatively speaking - no roses for the front rows or snaps of his kids. Instead, he crams in hit after potential hit.

The woollen-hatted artist claims at the start that one of his themes is pride in where you're from, though, apart from the title track, a smart knitting together of those Seventies touchstones the Silver Jubilee and The Sex Pistols, this is the writer on the firm ground of love in a damp climate.

"Journey from A to B" could be his most disarming cry of devotion yet, while the more thoughtful "Degrees Of Separation" sums up perfectly his us-against-the-world attitude. A steely performance and the band's own grit give this the feel of medium-early Elvis Costello. Elsewhere, his direct style provides a bundle of clichés. "Promises" is trite, and the plodding "Walking You Home Tonight" is more "Walking In Memphis" - painful to admit, as he reveals that it was written on the anniversary of a friend's untimely death. A kaleidoscopic mix of styles brings to mind Billy Joel at his most schmaltzy and Dire Straits' "Romeo and Juliet" period, a notion reinforced by the artist's finger-picking style.

The set is saved by a healthy selection of fan favourites, mainly numbers from a debut album that towers over anything else, even when performed solo. "The Shining", in particular, recalls how extraordinary Gough sounded when he first emerged, and how ordinary those singer-songwriters that followed have been. When the band returns, the onslaught is obscenely loud for such a compact venue. They offer songs so irresistible, and play them with such zeal, that they demand to be heard in a far larger space.

With the forthcoming single, "Nothing's Gonna Change Your Mind", Gough has given in to his ability to write a solid-gold anthem. Then, finally, on an utterly irrepressible "Pissing in the Wind", Gough's outfit suggest that they could equal Springsteen's own E Street Band, as bar-room piano vies with searing lead guitar to joyous effect.

As if this triumph was too much for Gough, he then manages to undermine it by tripping over a monitor on his way off-stage. Not that anyone is fooled, for the Badly Drawn Boy has a sharp new design.

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