Live Review: Badly Drawn Boy at City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds (01/04/23)

Tucked away past the Biffa bins of Swan Street in Leeds, is the City Varieties Music Hall. With all the trimmings of a 19th century theatre and open since 1865, the venue is a little slice of Leeds’s music history. Now, contemporary performers are set against a dramatic backdrop: traditional galleries with royal boxes are trimmed with red curtains that rise above the main seats below.

One artist who recently provided an interesting contrast to the opulence of the venue was Badly Drawn Boy. Bedecked with a beanie and some dry northern wit, he performed his Leeds leg of his anniversary tour ‘25 years of Badly Drawn Boy’ at the venue. Damon Gough, who has been performing under the moniker Badly Drawn Boy since the late nineties, first emerged onto a Manchester music scene that was becoming stiflingly “Oasis-ed”. The sensitive and sometimes peculiar lyricism of Gough’s music stood him in good stead to be a face of an emerging alternative. 

Gough began his gig chronologically with songs ‘Shake the Rollercoaster’ and ‘Possibilities’ from his first EPs and then sang from his Mercury Award winning first album The Hour of Bewilderbeast. After, because carrying on chronologically “would just be fucking stupid”, the setlist unfurled from there. We hear songs and stories about his film scores for About a Boy and The Fattest Man in Britain which add the lineage and sentimentality of a reunion tour. With ease and precision Gough moves between guitars, piano and briefly the harmonica. From his newest album Banana Skin Shoes, we hear the song ‘Appletree Boulevard’ which, clunkily signalled by the red and white stage lights, is about a time of uncertainty in Britain after the Brexit referendum. 

Despite the 25 years of expertise that the tour name implies, Gough has nothing to boast of when it comes to his etiquette: he awkwardly stops and starts songs because “it’s just not working is it?” and has about as much cheerful stage presence as my left foot. The repeated stopping and starting becomes frustrating when you want to hear a classic like ‘Once Around the Block’ without interruption. With this, there is also a sense of an illusion broken when Gough acknowledges that the song you’ve been eagerly waiting to hear is dull for him to perform after so many years. 

Yet, there is a likeable frankness to Gough’s openness and struggle to simply just ‘perform’. We’ve come to expect artists to play gigs exactly how we want them to because we’ve paid for it. Perhaps it’s an unsurprising by-product of marketisation which pits us always as customers who receive products and when we don’t get exactly what we’ve cashed in for, we’re unsatisfied. But live music, especially in independent venues like the Varieties, is not just an exchange but an experience for both the artist and the audience. Of course it’s boring to have to perform ‘Silent Sigh’ for 20 odd years and it’s even more boring to pretend as though it isn’t. 

There is an irreverence to Gough’s low-energy performance; it’s interesting to witness how he performs his songs in the moment and if I want to hear ‘Once Around the Block’ all the way through, just how I like it, I can stick in on my headphones.