When he played his first London gig back at the tail end of 2007, Jay Brannan was known as a cast member of John Cameron Mitchell’s real sex flick Shortbus who stripped off and arranged himself into a variety of curious positions. His music was a lesser known quantity.
Fast forward 18 months and his opening song in Bush Hall has the audience singing along to the unlikely line: “I want to be a housewife, what’s so wrong with that?” Painfully slowly, the buzzcut Texan is establishing himself as an independent voice in the mould of Ani DiFranco – a neat counterpunch to those who’d dismiss him as “the Bel Ami Juliana Hatfield“.
It’s a help that his debut album Goddamned finally emerged in the latter half of 2008. His fans, unlike first time round, include some women in amongst the glaze-eyed gays this time. We know this because a bra gets flung at him. “That’s a first,” he smiles, wryly, arranging it atop a stag stand.
He has the self-confidence to stop during that first song, Housewife, to emphasise that, yes, he did indeed say “fuck”. Ooh, naughty. “Say cunt!” shouts some wag.
He’d oblige, of course. It’s his second time headlining Bush Hall and he’s happy to be back “in a place where Lily Allen played,” he gasps. “I like Lily. She’s kinda cunty.” Whoops and cheers mingle with the giggles. In print it may not seem it, but in person it’s all terribly love-in and nice, despite the blue language.
That Brannan is a motormouth is well documented in his various online profiles; on Justin.tv he’ll interact live with fans while playing songs from his bedroom. A good portion of tonight’s audience feel connected to him, and he only strengthens these bonds as he ambles through his set. Throughout he’s been at pains to underline that he’s doing everything himself, without a manager or label backing (although Nettwerk are helping him in the UK) – when he thanks his audience for their support, he sounds like he really means it.
This being England, he takes to the stage with a packet of crumpets. He’d tweeted earlier that he expected to have tea thrown at him and sure enough somebody obliges. There’s a tale about his yellow t-shirt, with the legend “I HATE EVERYONE”, clashing with his guitar; there’s a wobbly English accent – “well it’s one of the 30 accents here, right?” – a gag about Bob Dylan and some musings on the gag reflex, all endearingly whimsical punctuations between songs. He’s acted, he sings, but, like DiFranco – who also played here – he could easily add a third string to his bow as a stand-up comedian.
Up till now he’d comfortably held the stage on his own, with only a mic and his acoustic guitar for company. Inevitably without instrumental variation his music verges on the samey, with similar structures at the core of String Along Song and Ever After Happily. Possibly he’s realised this, so switches to keyboard, seated far over to stage right where all of six people can see what he does for the next few numbers. There’s palpable relief when he returns to play guitar and is again visible – his audience can connect with him once more.
Proving there’s plenty of depth to mine when he wants to, Goddamned’s quietly devastating title track ends his main set in some style. A tirade against religious fanaticism, it takes in Christianity, Islam and even Greek legends: “Coz virgins don’t have babies, and water isn’t wine… rip your bigot roots up and salt the goddamned ground… No-one’s coming to save you.” It’s rooted in a quite different place to the rest of the evening’s delectations and shows a creditable willingness to tackle weighty matters. There could be more in this vein, but Jay Brannan already sounds far more accomplished than his single-album status would suggest.
Inevitably his cloyingly sweet Shortbus number Soda Shop and the wannabe gay anthem Half-Boyfriend wrap it all up. He unhooks his mic, packs up his empty water bottles and is gone – at least until his next impromptu interactive gig on a computer screen somewhere near you.