David Thomas Broughton at the Living Room
Wed Mar 18 2009
Midway through his first song, David Thomas Broughton already seemed to be in distress. The British singer—performing at the Living Room as part of a night hosted by The Local, a roving London music showcase—kicked off his postmidnight set in a way that was familiar to anyone who had heard him on record, setting up several overlapping acoustic-guitar lines via a loop pedal. When it came time to sing, though, Broughton's voice wouldn't cooperate. He squeezed out a few phrases in his patented blank, haunted croon but then broke out in fit of coughing. Second and third attempts yielded the same result. Broughton motioned to the back of the room and mouthed, "Water!" His manager hurried up to the stage with a bottle and sat back down. Into the mike, Broughton asked slyly, "Will you unscrew it for me?" At that moment it became clear that whether the coughing episode had been real or simulated, it was no detour—it was as much a part of performance as the stunted song itself.
For a solid hour, Broughton walked this "Is he serious?" tightrope, projecting a profound eccentricity that made it impossible to look away. He sang absentmindedly, as if making up his words on the spot. He violently mock-stabbed himself with the emtpy water bottle and smacked it on his head. He wandered into the crowd, stacking chairs, perusing drink menus and swigging off abandoned beers. He sat down beside audience members and fidgeted incessantly, as though in the thrall of Tourette's. He played with his hair and stared into space.
In the hands of a lesser performer, all of this would have been annoying, if not infuriating. But Broughton's coup was that he never gave the audience an out: no knowing smiles, no song introductions, no break in character whatsoever. The tension was unbearable and riveting. Was he on drugs? Was he in the midst of some kind of manic episode? Was it all just an elaborate avant-garde stage act? It was impossible to tell, so much so that as he strode through the audience one felt a distinct sense of menace: If he'd suddently decided to physically assault a spectator, it would have seemed perfectly logical in context.
Yet for all its absurdity and creepiness, the performance was gorgeous. After the bout of coughing, Broughton found his voice and charted a freewheeling route through his singular catalog. His songs obsess over failed relationships, mingling tenderness and brutality like the best of Leonard Cohen. His persona is that of a zombiefied sinner: forlorn yet completely remorseless. "I'm going to drink until I stink," he moaned at one point, and it was easy to believe him, even if he looked too lanky and youthful to be expressing such dark thoughts in such a strange, archaic voice.
Doveman's Thomas Bartlett was Broughton's only accompanist, providing piano and percussion. He grasped the singer's rambling style perfectly, drifting in with spare, evocative chords when the music settled down and backing away during Broughton's intermittent feedback assaults, howling amp-noise interludes that would've sounded right at home at No Fun Fest.
When Broughton finally paused long enough for the audience to applaud, he grabbed the mike and began beat-boxing vigorously. There were a few scattered laughs, but the singer kept a perfectly straight face, a fitting conclusion to the most brilliant and baffling show I'm likely to see this year.