Some of the most arresting cinematic scenes of recent years belong to John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, a film of and about New York and its denizens. In this film young Texan troubador Jay Brannan was seen in a threesome with his mouth full while a third man sings the Star Spangled Banner up his arse.
Perhaps more importantly, in several scenes Brannan sings his own songs. But at his European live debut tonight, it’s a fair bet that most of the audience recalls the sex scenes (essentially, most of the film) as much as his butter-wouldn’t-melt singing. As Brannan takes to the Fly’s tiny stage with just an acoustic guitar and mic and sits, the audience is on tiptoes to see him. His blond hair is cropped military-style short and he sports jeans and a grey t-shirt. Quite the boy-toy next door.
Just in case anyone’s in the dark about his involvement in one of the most explicit cinema releases this – or any – decade, he mentions the film before even beginning his headline set. Later, in one of many pauses for lengthy anecdotes, he explains that in order to be taken seriously as an artist he was told to “put a shirt on”. In response he recorded himself playing songs naked in a toilet. Jay Brannan, were one needed, would be the very definition of out and proud.
The fawning audience indulge in two-way repartee throughout. Brannan holds his own. When other visiting American artists might simply say “hello London” and play a tune, he has a whole conversation. First there’s a bitch about tube fares (expensive), air conditioning (lack of) and smokers (he’s dehydrated already). He’s bought an Oyster card, he says, and the grinning faces arrayed before him laugh. Continued audience interjections lead to the funniest moment: “Is this what happens when a country gets free health care?” He asks if gays can get married here and, on hearing the affirmative, decides he’s going to set up home in England.
Having proved his between-songs banter is the equal of anyone’s, he swiftly underlines his abilities with chord structures, melody and lyrics. In one early song he sings “I want to be a housewife, what’s so wrong with that” before indulging in touching whimsy about his man working on the car while he prepares guacamole. Intelligent and witty he clearly is, but he doesn’t ever use his abilities in a patronising manner. Instead his easy charisma ensures rapt attention throughout.
Soda Shop, from Shortbus, is probably Brannan’s best known track at this stage. Like much else here it sits somewhere between the cool surfer melodic dudeness of Jack Johnson and the intricacy of Ani DiFranco. American Idol, with the unarguable chorus line of “American Idol, get the hell off my TV”, elicits giggles and cheers. In this and elsewhere in his set he plucks away at his guitar’s strings, following emotive and open structures and stream of consciousness lyrics. He even turns in a 3/4 number that begs to be waltzed to, though he never quite gets round to rocking out.
For most of the set, in songs like Body’s A Temple and Soda Shop, his voice is sweet and tuneful, but his angsty numbers prove he’s capable of singing with real passion. Towards the end he turns peacenik, singing about laying arms down, but he returns to the personal with Half-Boyfriend, an ode to a lost love who’s “only half bad”. It’s a highlight.
Afterwards his numbered EPs, each with a unique polaroid of him, sell out at £10 each. His show tonight and another at the Barfly tomorrow are sold out too. All this and he doesn’t have a record deal yet. Jay Brannan is only going to get bigger – and on his own terms.