A former ballroom in the heart of chic Bloomsbury, complete with art deco opulence, satin drapes and a genteel theatre crowd to match? It must be time for opening act Isobel Campbell, whose fans at first outnumber the tea-cosy wearing faithful staking their claim at the edge of the stage as they wait patiently for Badly Drawn Boy.
For Ms Campbell, former Belle and Sebastian chanteuse-cum-cellist, sometime collaborator of Mark Lanegan and solo artiste of increasing grandeur, the Bloomsbury Ballroom is the perfect venue. Perched in the middle of a small but perfectly formed stage, accompanied by collaborators who cycle through stringed instruments from acoustic guitars to something that looks like a cross between a lute and a slide guitar, she beats a steady, haunting drum as her ethereal vocals wash over the crowd. Later, she will use a feather as a plectrum. The audience is appreciatively quiet and terribly polite, ensuring that the fragile harmonies don’t get lost.
The most striking feature of the performance is the netherworld between classic and pop that Campbell’s music (and voice) occupies, a form of modern madrigal that harks back to a time when folk singers and orchestras last shared a common ancestor. It’s a fusion that seems tailor-made for a venue such as this, which itself blurs the distinction between high and low culture. Twenty minutes in, she reaches for the cello and takes us away on a summer breeze that liberates us from the cold November night we know lies only a ballroom wall away, before plugging in for a final track that explodes into a darker, unashamedly post-modern place full of feedback and a slave ship drumbeat.
Campbell and the venue are well-matched, far more so – you could be forgiven 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 up in a doorway and still been dragged through a hedge backwards on his way to the stage, Damon Gough couldn’t look less like the kind of person you’d expect to bump into in an art deco ballroom on Bloomsbury Square. Remarkably though, 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 the concert 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 dispensing with of the rest of the band for a middle act of better-known hits he performs alone, pleasing the clearly devoted crowd with favourites such as A Minor Incident and The Shining.
The band return and, as he ups the rock ante, you realise that it’s not so much the songs that have made the evening (he even jokes with the crowd about the critics’ lukewarm response to his current album, pointing out that it’s not they who are the problem but the fans who aren’t buying it) as the performance. Chain smoking throughout, expressing faux surprise that the crowd have come at all and then that they are bothering to stay, there’s an air of Morrissey about his interaction with his audience that brings his 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-cosy headwear and the satin drapes playing to his strengths as much as it suited Campbell.
He pretends to take requests from the crowd but finds spurious reasons to dismiss all of them before launching into Nothing’s Gonna Change Your Mind which, 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 the remains of Born In The UK, from Promises, Walk You Home Tonight and You Were Right, exiting on an axe-solo version of One Last Dance.
With neither Donna And Blitzen, Pissing In The Wind nor Magic In The Air having yet been offered up there is of course time for an encore. At the end of it, the band return for a final, well-deserved bow: he’s won this sceptic over.