Badly Drawn Boy, Royal Festival Hall, London

4.00

Return of the boy wonder

Badly Drawn Boy shambles on stage at the Royal Festival Hall, cigarette in one hand, drink in the other, and that familiar red beany covering his mop of hair, with an air of utter relaxation. It's a feeling that quickly spreads throughout the whole gig: the audience, sweating away furiously, stroll in and out of the hall to fetch drinks and in the corner of the stage there is a beer garden with an umbrella, a bench, and a table full of booze which his band gather around, lighting cigarettes and whispering to each other when not accompanying the charismatic, feral figure of Damon Gough.

Badly Drawn Boy shambles on stage at the Royal Festival Hall, cigarette in one hand, drink in the other, and that familiar red beany covering his mop of hair, with an air of utter relaxation. It's a feeling that quickly spreads throughout the whole gig: the audience, sweating away furiously, stroll in and out of the hall to fetch drinks and in the corner of the stage there is a beer garden with an umbrella, a bench, and a table full of booze which his band gather around, lighting cigarettes and whispering to each other when not accompanying the charismatic, feral figure of Damon Gough.

The 2000 Mercury prize winner is playing the "Heroes and Villains" season on the South Bank, a month after the release of his third album One Plus One is One (not taking into account the soundtrack to the film About a Boy - what he calls his "Hugh Grant album"). After a few songs it becomes apparent that Gough intends to play this third album in sequence, and in its entirety. This album marks a return to the sound of his first - The Hour of the Bewilderbeast - that earned him the Mercury prize with its folksy. melancholic ballads, sitting alongside the more ambitious, ramped up singles. "This is That New Song" is a welcome blend of the peculiar and the profound that Gough has made his own while "Year of the Rat" uses his trick of setting up a grand, sing-along chorus with wilfully obscure lyrics: "Everybody's gotta know it's the year of the rat", he intones over a great, surging melody. It's something he did with great success in his second album when the chorus line and pinnacle of a love letter to his wife finds him asking: "And have you fed the fish my dear?"

As the album progresses, Gough's initial air of relaxation departs a little, as he becomes irritated by himself or by some malfunctioning equipment. At one point he stops mid-song, unhappy with how his guitar is tuned, and stalks off to the beer garden where he smokes a cigarette moodily. Gough thanks his audience as the album reaches its close in "Holy Grail" and promises to be in a better mood after the interval. Indeed he comes out a much more sprightly figure. "I'm never going to play an album from start to finish again," he says, "too much pressure." Pressure off, the second half of the show is a delight. He horses around with the band, skipping between guitar and piano, strikes a few mock-rocker poses and banters with the audience. "I'd like to thank the Royal Festival Hall," he says at one point, "for what is certainly the best venue... on the South Bank." He plays the Dylan-esque "Minor Incident" with its tumbling guitar contrasted with the bitter wheeze of the harmonica, which leads into the string-laden opening of "The Shining". The songs are all slightly wistful and perfectly complemented by Gough's voice, a soft drawling sound that coasts along the melodies.

There's the rapturously received "Silent Sigh" from the About A Boy album and then some more ballads that Gough dedicates to his wife up in the royal box. These ballads may well have been the reason many of the audience came. As they begin, arms coil around each other and eyes mist up.

He finishes with a long, improvised jam in which he discusses the state of the nation, love, and the winner of Big Brother. Wrapped around his microphone stand and waving a cigarette in the air as he croons away, the bearded Gough makes an unlikely crooner, but by this stage he holds the audience captive. He leaves as he arrived, fag and drink in hand, his relaxed air accompanied by a palpable sense of achievement.

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