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Examining the trappings of pop stardom
Badly Drawn Boy yearns to make good
by Mark Anderson

Take on the appearance of a calm person, it's been said, and you become a calm person. Might the same be true of pop stardom?

Let's examine the itinerant buzz surrounding Badly Drawn Boy, a Britisher whose tour bus rolled into Portland for a May 16 show at Berbati's Pan.

Born Damon Gough in 1969, Badly Drawn Boy has claimed a clever moniker to go with his seemingly self-assumed pop-star trappings.

Bewilderbeast, on Twisted Nerve, won the Mercury Award for best British album.

The Boy, already carrying the mantle of sensitive singer, songwriter and multi-instrumental wunderkind through a series of minor recordings, released his first album, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, in July. It won last year's English equivalent of a Grammy for Best Album.

He makes no bones about his aspirations.

"I don't mind if it takes 20 years for people to realize how good an album this is," the Boy told the press. "I totally didn't write it to fit in with what's going on, or is accepted, right now. I just wanted it to be considered as a classic piece of work."

In person, all scruffy and off-the-cuff, the Boy comes across as equally cocksure.

At Berbati's, Badly Drawn Boy and band showed infinite promise at the outset: a thick, infectiously repetitive bass line signaled a version of "Fall into the River" that clearly outshone the recorded rendition. Thus, the quartet -- drum, bass, guitar and keyboard in addition to the Boy, who worked mostly with bare fingers on Gibson electric six-string -- got off to a very impressive start.

But momentum, and a good portion of the crowd's attention, were lost soon thereafter. The show's early portion centered on a series of songs with distortion-filled guitar lines by the Boy, which, though entertaining in fuzz-toned bits and pieces, grew increasingly tiresome.

At one point, between constant puffs off an ever-present cigarette, the Boy admonished the somewhat distracted crowd.

"I need to hear a little less chat from that side of the room," he chided, "because this is a beautiful song."

But somewhere near the midpoint of the two-hour-plus show, he dug deep into his charm-filled bag of tricks and things once again began to click: "I think I'm changing, changing into the new Bono," rapped the Boy. "Only better songs. Better singer. Better looking. I talked to Bono yesterday -- he likes me and I like him."

And, eventually, win the crowd he did. It's hard not to find fondness for a guy who pulls out a picture of his half-year-old daughter, kisses it, dedicates to her a song, "The Shining," perhaps his loveliest number -- then proudly passes the photo around the medium-sized club.

Badly Drawn Boy wants you!

"I haven't seen her in a month," he said. "But I'll see her in San Francisco tomorrow."

Yet, at times the Boy seemed overly preoccupied with the exact positioning of a striped wool cap, his trademark prop, which apparently requires fastidious placement within a certain 1/8-inch area between eyeball and brow. At other times he seemed overly concerned with nothing so much as his next cigarette.

Fey distractions? Charming affectations? To each his own. Suffice to say that, in between intermittent songwriting beauty and distorted guitar, the Boy's live show is saddled with its share of unfocused ideas and utter clinkers; the same, to a significantly lesser degree, is true of his album.

And the bottom line is this: Bewilderbeast, though touched with an air of budding genius, is still a hit-and-miss patchwork. But the lengthy live show, albeit entertaining, is ultimately more miss than hit.

Many a debut recording over the last half-century has been touted as signaling the second coming of the Anointed One -- a high-minded notion only to be proven false with subsequent releases by each supposed deity in turn. Elliott Smith and Rufus Wainwright -- serious talents, no doubt -- are recent examples of semi-stars whose worthy skills seem much the same calibre as the Badly Drawn Boy's.

Toward the end of the Berbati's show, the Boy, working solo, launched a keyboard-based medley of covers, bookended by songs of his purported hero, Bruce Springsteen -- a former Anointed One whom history has indeed proved righteous.

"Thanks for indulging my overindulgence," said the Boy, before cobbling a well-received but sloppy snippet of "Thunder Road." By then the crowd, although only two-thirds its initial size, clearly belonged to him.

As the show ended, the band having long since left the stage, the Boy retrieved the photo of his daughter, stuffed it into his pocket and gamely shook hands with front-row fans -- stopping twice to sign lengthy messages into CD booklets.

Charming? For sure. And the future may indeed smile on one Badly Drawn Boy. But while he might already walk, talk, look, act, think -- and even occasionally sound -- like a major star, let's wait for a few more releases and a bit of refinement to the live act before we dub him the next anything at all.

Or, to paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, that iconic one-hit wonder of yesteryear: Damon Gough wasn't born to stardom, but he might be drawn that way.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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