Seventies rock star John Otway performed an extraordinary solo set at a pub gig last week replete with goofy and touchingly original slapstick involving a double-bodied guitar, baby doll, the whining sounds of a theremin, buttock percussion and a microphone strapped round his neck by a coat hanger.
Though worrisome when a 61-year-old is still doing somersaults and headbutting microphones, an ugly-duckling poignancy complements the wackiness, which brought him to fame in the punk era.
Otway is the antithesis of cool, slickness, suavity and professionalism, but he succeeds with ungainly raw passion and a capacity to discover roads seemingly too daft to have been previously travelled, which somehow get him to where he wants to go to.
His vocal delivery expresses this, and his song writing is, in its off-kilter way, actually very good. Poetry and Jazz and Josephine are genuinely touching ballads, and his version of I Will Survive, sung in the style of Bob Dylan, brings out the lyrics’ emotional resilience better than Gloria Gaynor’s disco original.
Otway’s extraordinary career, launched in the late 1970s with an appearance on Top of the Pops, threatened to end when his world tour including Sydney Opera House had to be cancelled due to costs when he added plans to fly his fans on a chartered jet around the world to accompany him.
Yet Otway soldiered on with gigs in small British venues, much as he has been doing since the 70s. Then Otway conceived of a way to trump this failure with a typically eccentric, ambitious and ingenuously egotistical plan: a movie all about himself.
Happily, in the past year the movie has been doing the rounds and is proving remarkably successful. Yet while the film portrays Otway’s character well and chronicles all the idiosyncratic career developments, it rather glosses over the main reason why he possesses such a devoted fanbase: the brilliantly entertaining gigs that are his bread and butter week-in, week-out.
At a certain point in every show he’s done for decades Otway suddenly rips off the buttons of his white shirt, revealing his skinny front for the rest of the set. Crazy antics expose a naked vulnerability, yet triumph. This extraordinary, endearing entertainment comes highly recommended, and the gig at Cambridge’s Portland Arms on 13 February came complete with crazy antics, proving particularly thrilling for first-timers keen to check him out on the strength of his much publicised movie.
It’s just as well that Otway is so good because support act Karmadillo was a hard one to follow. He plays a charango, which is a small guitar originally designed to be made out of an armadillo, although his one is made out of mere wood: ‘Anything hairier than my legs shouldn’t be a musical instrument’. He performs witty, often tender songs, of a kind that would go down well as an interlude in a Radio 4 chat show.
This is his first gig in two years but he intends to be back gigging regularly and he has an album available entitled Bard for Life, which is heartily recommended.