David Thomas Broughton may be too leftfield to ever have mainstream success, but it’s clear that his star in in the ascendancy, in its own peculiar way. Tonight sees him playing to a packed ICA, easily the biggest London venue that he’s headlined under his own name. But don’t expect any concessions to populism to match the bigger stage. Oh no. That’s not why people go to see DTB. We don’t want him to address the audience, smile and crack jokes. We don’t want him to play the songs the way they sound on the album, or even vaguely similar. We want him to remain obstuse and disregarding. Just as well, because that’s what we get.
In another gig with another artist, his sketchiness, and stuff like leaving a ringing electronic device (a rape alarm?) in the crowd, and writing a message telling us to ‘GO HOME’ would be the sort of things that career suicides are made up. Perversely, it’s exactly that sort of thing that keeps people coming back to see Broughton.
The gig has been billed as a run-through, Don’t Look Back-style, of David’s first album A Complete Guide to Insufficiency, which seems like an odd thing for him to do. For someone so freeform, it seems strange to constrain himself so much. But as it turns out, it’s in this exercise that he remains at his unpredictable best. He comes on alone to a darkened stage, and sets about taking his songs apart. The basic melodies are kept intact, but with his trademark looping and bizarre theatrics, they sound different from every previous time. I often wonder how much of his act is rehearsed and how much is on-the-spot improv. It certainly seems to be more the latter, and it’s often the little detail that’s the best, such as the physical comedy of his response to a slowly falling loose mic stand, and then looping the engineer’s comments to him throughout the rest of song he was playing.
The album itself is a minor masterpiece, and this interpretation is as unique and fresh as it would be any other time. It never sounds constrained and it’s only when he’s joined onstage by a double bass player and The Local’s Howard Monk on drums that he’s more reined in and less exciting. With the album session over, it’s the turn of other songs, including what sounds like new ones, which may feature on his upcoming long-player, to be released by The Local. It’s not like he’s going to tell us that, though. The songs sound good, but the combination of Broughton’s studied eccentricity and two great musicians holding down a groove don’t always work. He doesn’t use his looping quite so much, and at worst they come across like a band who can’t play very well together. So although I’ve been at better DTB shows, it’s still a rare treat. In a world of musical homogeneity, it’s always a pleasure to see an artist who really is like no-one else.
Before DTB’s set, I caught a few songs of Twi The Humble Feather’s support slot. Mind you, ’songs’ isn’t the best word to describe their meandering oddball folk. It’s the sort of thing that might repel people at first (I know some who left pretty sharpish), but sticking with them for a while, the intricate picking, the whole voices-as-instruments thing becomes quite mesmerising, and for a short time I was transfixed. Even better as a live performance than on record. However not quite compelling enough to keep me from a much-needed cold beer to mitigate against the ICA’s stifling interior.