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August 29, 2008

Concert Review: Jay Brannan @ Bush Hall

...or more accurately, Jay Brannan & Bitch, Bush Hall, Shepherds Bush, London.

I'm not entirely sure how I should start this review. While it would be 100% fair to simply go ahead and talk about merits of the show itself, I think a little background information is probably in order.

Who is Jay Brannan? Well, for starters, his website is here. Gee, that's sad... are people really defined by their websites these days? Anyway, there's a (hopefully!) tongue-in-cheek bio on there that's worth a read as it gives a flavour of Jay's onstage banter. There are also links to the many YouTube videos that he's posted and his MySpace page.

Okay, I'm going to cut right to the chase.

In 2001 John Cameron Mitchell directed the screen version of the rock opera "Hedwig & The Angry Inch". "Hedwig" is an unflinching look at the colourful life of a boy from Communist East Berlin who undergoes a sex-change operation in an attempt to escape to the West as the wife of a gummi-bear toting US soldier. The operation is botched and rather than having brand new girlie-bits, he/she is left with an 'angry inch'.

"Six inches forward
Five inches back
I've got an angry inch"

You get the picture?

Sticking with her transexual persona, Hedwig proceeds to take (Mid-Western) America by storm (in a teacup) by putting together a rock band. Along the way she meets a new boy, to whom she teaches her songs. The boy turns around, steals her material and skyrockets to stardom. Hedwig follows him around, trying to show him up as a fraud...

It's a pretty standard movie premise, really...

So, JCM directed "Hedwig" then got the idea to make a movie which was about... erm... the human spirit and the role of intimacy in a variety of disfunctional relationships... I guess. It's a credit to JCM that the movie features a significant amount of graphic real sex (and I mean graphic), but it's never gratuitous. It's actually a credit to the Board of Censors that the movie recieved a rating and was given a cinema release. It's a great semi-comedic art-house film. In many ways the movie's strength is that it never takes itself too seriously. The relationships are not touched up with a Hollywood airbrush. They're often clumsy and awkward.

And to the point. New York based singer-songwriter Jay Brannan was featured in the movie (I won't go into detailed character analysis here) as was one of his songs, "Soda Shop". To quote him from last night, "Shortbus is one of the few things I've done that I'm truly proud of" (or something like that).

We loved the movie and we loved the song, and indeed the whole soundtrack. "Soda Shop" is a relatively simple acoustic groove which actually sounds much more complex than it is... a sign of good composition? As soon as I heard it I felt compelled to learn how to play it, which says something!

I have to say we were apprehensive about going to see the show. We were concerned that Jay might be a one-trick pony with "Soda Shop" being his Opus Magnus. He isn't. It isn't. His other songs were varied, melodic and really provided the perfect backdrop for his soft-yet-strong vocals. The set list wasn't exactly brimming with happy songs, but hey, who needs 'happy' when sad sounds that good. His lyrics may be melancholic but at the same time they're clever and ironic (Alanis? Can you hear me Alanis?!) They're very 'New York'.

The inter-song banter (occasionally intra-song) was also spot on with lots of audience participation. You definitely got the feeling that Jay was just a guy who climbed onstage, did his stuff and was surprised that people wanted to hear more. At times he was sharp, at times seemed slightly bewildered by how into the music the crowd was. Overall, his nascent showmanship shone through.

Do you like that? 'Nascent showmanship'. I just made that up!

Is Jay Brannan's star rising? Is he ready for it? Who can say. He has four TV spots in the UK and a self-funded debut album, "Goddamned" that entered the iTunes download chart at number 25. It's also available in physical form via his website. He even has a single out, complete with a video, entitled "Housewife". The song starts off seeming to be a whimsical love song but turns in on itself and ends up being a tale of love not-yet-found.

Hey, how about a picture? Here you go... this is one I took with my stunningly awful cameraphone...

Jay's much less blurry in person. Look, here's the album cover:

By the end of Jay's set we were ready to go home. Bush Hall wasn't a comfortable venue (no A/C!) and we were dripping with sweat. I was also concerned that I might have screwed my back up again as conditions were similar to those at the Robert Randolph show. Given the jam/audition/whatever on Sunday I didn't want to risk hanging around. In hindsight I wish we had. I would have bought a t-shirt, a CD and maybe had Jay sign my boobs!

Hey, Jay, if still you're in town tonight, drop me an email and I'll come buy some merch from you! If you're not, enjoy your show in Bristol tomorrow night. Thekla's an interestingly boaty venue. Don't expect A/C!

Oh, finally, Jay was supported by Bitch, another of the Shortbus cast. Bitch's one-woman multi-intrumental performance formed the perfect counterpart to Jay's set and she added a welcome layer to Jay's performance of the album title-track, "Goddamned". I'm always humbled by people who make simple music (in a good way) sound so vibrant and alive. Leaving "Pussy Manifesto" to one side, the highlight of her act was a uke-driven cover of "Staying Alive"... stripped down, two chords, no disco... more of a folk-ballad than anything else. Cool!

And in one final tribute to the whole "Shortbus" cast and crew, I just want to scream one heartfelt... "I'M AN ALBINO!"

[You'd have to see the movie to get that one!]


Axe Victim said...


Kenski said...

I've never played so many downstrokes in my life...