POP / Free spirit: John Otway - Edinburgh Festival

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The Independent Online
IN A FRINGE Festival noted for acts bent on ritual self- humiliation, John Otway fits in a treat. Aylesbury's self- destruct merchant has made such an art of not being able to play, it's hard to tell these days whether he's faking it or not. His endearing lack of ambition, however, is real enough. The fact that only 30 people turned up to Monday's show was partly down to Otway's concerted anti-publicity drive. In a city plastered with posters screaming glowing, and often fabricated, press tributes, Otway has a single poster in the venue's bar, comprising a picture of himself, laughing into the mike, with the solitary word 'Otway'. No mention of time or place, not even the obligatory 'comic genius'. Just 'Otway'. Seek and ye shall find.

Since his 2,000th gig in November, the 42-year-old Otway has rattled off 100 shows. Mostly he plays pubs and student dives, so the Gilded Balloon's Gallery Theatre, with its tables and chairs, was bordering on the chi-chi. Working with Richard Holgarth, sound engineer-turned-lead guitarist, Otway has written his first songs for 12 years (entitled 'Song Number One' and 'Song Number Two'), one a moody ballad, the other a rant. The show is peerless.

Otway, in the same white shirt and black jeans he's had on for almost 20 years, plays his mix of bed-sit anarchist and clowning self-deprecator to the hilt. 'We're gonna start with my hit,' he says, introducing 'Really Free'. 'It soared to number 27 in the charts 17 years ago and made me the man I am today.' It's not surprising that he's only spent one week of his career in the album charts. Live is, uh, where he's at. Two songs in and he's run out of hits. So he delivers a howling rendition of the Sweet's 'Blockbuster' complete with cockerel-crowing chorus. Then, for 'Body Talk', he stuffs the drum machine's sensor pads into his pockets and down the back of his trousers. Wired for sound, he beats the hell out of his body-cum-drum-kit before swallowing the mike. Better still, a Bob Dylan parody of Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive', then a country-punk 'Two Little Boys', a bruising 'Headbutts', a spot of tennis using the microphone and the back of his guitar and he's into the bar next door. As he wrings out his shirt, he reflects on the night's performance. 'Just prattin' about innit.'

Gilded Balloon, 233 Cowgate, Edinburgh (031-226 2151), 11.30pm. To 23 Aug