A former ballroom in the heart of chic Bloomsbury, complete with art decoopulence, satin drapes and a genteel theatre crowd to match? It must be timefor opening act Isobel Campbell, whose fans at first outnumber the tea-cosywearing faithful staking their claim at the edge of the stage as they waitpatiently for Badly Drawn Boy.
For Ms Campbell, former Belle & Sebastian chanteuse-cum-cellist,sometime collaborator of Mark Lanegan and solo artiste of increasinggrandeur, the Bloomsbury Ballroom is the perfect venue. Perched in themiddle of a small but perfectly formed stage, accompanied by collaboratorswho cycle through stringed instruments from acoustic guitars to somethingthat looks like a cross between a lute and a slide guitar, she beats asteady, haunting drum as her ethereal vocals wash over the crowd. Later, shewill use a feather as a plectrum. The audience is appreciatively quiet andterribly polite, ensuring that the fragile harmonies don’t get lost.
The most striking feature of the performance is the netherworld betweenclassic and pop that Campbell’s music (and voice) occupies, a form of modernmadrigal that harks back to a time when folk singers and orchestras lastshared a common ancestor. It’s a fusion that seems tailor-made for a venuesuch as this, which itself blurs the distinction between high and lowculture. Twenty minutes in, she reaches for the cello and takes us away on asummer breeze that liberates us from the cold November night we know liesonly a ballroom wall away, before plugging in for a final track thatexplodes into a darker, unashamedly post-modern place full of feedback and aslave ship drumbeat.
Campbell and the venue are well-matched, far more so – you could beforgiven for thinking – than the evening’s main act, Badly Drawn Boy.Arriving on stage with pint glass in hand, looking as if he’s just woken upin a doorway and still been dragged through a hedge backwards on his way tothe stage, Damon Gough couldn’t look less like the kind of person you’dexpect to bump into in an art deco ballroom on Bloomsbury Square. Remarkablythough, it works. It defies the laws of physics, but it does.
Opening on summer single Born In The UK, he spends the first third of theconcert working his way through the current album of the same name,including Journey From A To B, Degrees Of Separation, Long Way Round,Welcome To The Overground and The Way Things Used To Be before dispensingwith of the rest of the band for a middle act of better-known hits heperforms alone, pleasing the clearly devoted crowd with favourites such as AMinor Incident and The Shining.
The band return and, as he ups the rock ante, you realise that it’s notso much the songs that have made the evening (he even jokes with the crowdabout the critics’ lukewarm response to his current album, pointing out thatit’s not they who are the problem but the fans who aren’t buying it) as theperformance. Chain smoking throughout, expressing faux surprise that thecrowd have come at all and then that they are bothering to stay, there’s anair of Morrisseyabout his interaction with his audience that bringshis appeal into glorious perspective. With his closely observed lyrics -name checking Jilted John and Sid Vicious in the same song,for example – he is at times as much stand-up comic as he is rock star,entertaining the crowd and playing off it, the juxtaposition of his tea-cosyheadwear and the satin drapes playing to his strengths as much as it suitedCampbell.
He pretends to take requests from the crowd but finds spurious reasons todismiss all of them before launching into Nothing’s Gonna Change Your Mindwhich, seated at an electric piano, he clearly intended to play all along.From here until the end of the show its a mixture of old favourites and theremains of Born in the UK, from Promises, Walk You Home Tonight and You WereRight, exiting on an axe-solo version of One Last Dance.
With neither Donna and Blitzen, Pissing in the Wind nor Magic in the Airhaving yet been offered up there is of course time for an encore. At the endof it, the band return for a final, well-deserved bow: he’s won this scepticover.