Butler's first steps into solo life were bound to be tentative, and difficult. He was hurt by the poison in his relationship with Suede singer Brett Anderson, and only recently entered the war of words which has surrounded his drifting from one collaboration to the next, with only the McAlmont- sung "Yes" to warm memories of his genius.
But the concept of this night, the second of four, is too compromised to truly test him, or the power of his debut album's songs.
Those songs were surely meant for the swelling strings and electricity he powers them with on record. They were surely intended, too, to be played to crowds of more than the hundred or so in this Islington loft. Instead of a night where Butler can stand or fall, this is more like some meaningless title-fight warm-up, shadow-boxing with dutiful partners.
None of that would matter, perhaps, if Butler could summon something extraordinary from within himself, wring something special from his guitar. But no matter how hard he strikes it, few songs spark. (One exception is his first solo single, "Stay", perhaps the only song familiar enough to be heard properly.) It leaves one's attention to fall on the peripherals of his performance, what he's like centre-stage at last.
He looks surprisingly laddish after the Suede years when he melted into the background. With a shaggy, mid-Sixties mop which shields his eyes, he looks bashful too. His singing voice is pure and pretty, if indistinctive; he sways with as much purpose as you can, when you're sitting on a stool.
But what really stays with me, from this timid night, is Bernard Butler's reaction to his audience. "You're really polite," he tells us. "I don't know if that's a good thing." Before he plays bigger venues, he needs to make up his mind.
Before playing "Autograph", he asks us to stop laughing. Trying to make it a joke, but he means it. Introducing his last song, "I'm Tired", he's still smarting from the previous week's crowd not shutting up when he asked. "I got really angry, and it's my own fault," he admits.
He's obviously still fragile as a solo performer, still unused to its demands. Perhaps he was affected, too, by being punched before the show, which he mentions in passing. But if he's going to communicate to less accommodating crowds, he's going to have to get used to imperfection. Probably, the future will be nothing like tonight. Hopefully, Butler will learn from it. With his electric guitar back in his hands, he may yet be the star he's always promised.
Bernard Butler continues Upstairs at the Garage next Tuesday; his new single, `Not Alone' is out on Creation next week.Reuse content