- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Badly Drawn Boy, the scruffy purveyor of the power lullaby, rocked a packed house at the 9:30 Club on Tuesday, playing a mix of favorite hits, a few numbers from his early extended play albums, and a slew of cuts off his newest release, “Born in the U.K.”

He’s best known for his work on the soundtrack to the Hugh Grant film “About a Boy,” and more than a few of his fans were drawn to the show expecting a Vegas-style greatest hits medley, shouting out song titles in the sometimes not so brief pauses between numbers.

The songs on the new album, which he played with the able assistance of a four-piece backing band, mix a bright, major key pop sensibility with a sense of longing and loss. He bridges the gap between the two extremes with a rough-edged, brooding, honest voice that was in fine form at his Washington concert.

Switching deftly between guitar and keyboards, Badly Drawn Boy (the stage name Damon Gough has used since 1999) did a credible job of translating even the more complex album orchestrations with the help of a second keyboard player and a guitarist who wrung out improbably durable notes with the aid of a sustain pedal and an impressive array of effects boxes.

While Badly Drawn Boy is known for windy monologues, he stayed largely on point, letting his music do the talking and only occasionally interjecting with a song title or brief riff on the inspiration or meaning behind the lyrics. At one point, by way of introducing the title track from the new record, he wondered why he had, “become this entity called Badly Drawn Boy,” adding, “I’m not too sure I did the right thing.” His audience answered his self-doubt with unqualified encouragement, and the singer, clearly energized by the overflow crowd, rewarded them with a set that topped two hours in length and included a four-song encore.

He was also generous with the cover songs. His interpretation of Madonna’s classic, “Like a Virgin,” at first seemed a calculated excursion into hipster irony, but as the number went on, perhaps in the fourth bar of a lengthy keyboard solo, it became clear that Badly Drawn Boy was looking for a hidden emotional center that was perhaps absent from the Material Girl’s version.

He also assayed a version of Journey’s oratorio, “Don’t Stop Believin,’ ” which had to be cut in midstream because the band hadn’t practiced the song. The audience sang as one, somewhat in awe as Badly Drawn Boy channeled Steve Perry’s classic vocal part in what was perhaps the highlight of the concert.

In a revealing aside after the band broke stride, he said, “I listened to that song 10 times a day for a year” — an admission that explains the artist’s fascination with the bright, shiny keyboard riffs that form the backbone of such new songs as “Journey From A to B,” “Nothing’s Gonna Change Your Mind,” and “One Last Dance.”

Adem, the opening act, turned in a credible effort but fared less well with the audience. Somewhere in the musical universe, there is a solemn temple of rock nerds where a bald, bespectacled singer can get a fair hearing for a set that included a song cribbed from the children’s book, “Little Red Fox” accompanied only by the ringing of hand-held bells, but it’s not the 9:30 Club.

The din of conversation all but drowned out the set except for devoted fans who pressed against the stage to listen. It’s a pity, because the songs, from his recent album, “Love and Other Planets,” featured an unusual array of instruments as well as Adem’s gift for extracting both rhythm and melody from the acoustic guitar (by using a deft and difficult slapping technique), and a rare ability to play the instrument with one hand while plucking a tiny mbira or “thumb piano” in the other.

Perhaps not the stuff of sold-out rock gigs, but worth a listen nonetheless.

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