I'd first been made aware of Truax's work when he played my old friend Richard Sanderson's avant-garde night Baggage Reclaim on Denmark Street's 12 Bar Club about fifteen years ago. With his self-made instruments, nods to Southern Gothic, and songs about being forced to marry someone's daughter against his will he had something of the young Tom Waits about him, a comedy Nick Cave even.
It was sheer coincidence that a few years after that I used to see him regularly perched in East Dulwich's gone but not forgotten dive bar/music mecca Inside 72, often staring intently into his laptop. Then he fell off my radar for a few years. I found out, last night from the stage, he'd been living in Berlin but other than that not much has changed in Truax's world, or Wowtown as his regular newsletter calls it. The home made instruments have mutated into his 'family', the back catalogue has got more extensive, and he's picked up a small, but loyal, following who mouth every word of the older songs with a passion you'd expect from the audience of a much larger artist.
First up, however, is Bird Radio. Kicking off a set with a minimal take on Einsturzende Neubaten's, already pretty minimal, The Garden is a brave move for any artist but Bird Radio just about pulls it off. He's a handsome chap but his luxurious mane suggests he belongs in some nineties band like Eat or The Wonderstuff which seems an odd fit with his music.
Generating live loops from flute, various percussive tools, and his own voice and then intoning heartfelt odes to Naples and the sound of birdsong over the top, he's engaging, affable, and generous in thanking the audience, the soundman, and Thomas Truax. He invites his girlfriend, Ciara, on stage to play guitar for a couple of songs and those, like the rest of his oeuvre, grow from unpromising starts into really quite lovely things. The only misfire for me is Who Killed Cock Robin? which suffers from being just a little bit too hammy for my liking. Judging by the rest of the audience, however, I was in a minority on this.
Thomas Truax starts the gig in the corner of the room by the bar wearing some silly glasses before marching through the crowd, singing and playing guitar as he goes, to the stage. He runs the risk of coming across as a novelty act and, at times, strays dangerously close to dreaded steampunk territory but his self-deprecating anecdotes, his gifted grasp of the guitar, and the percussion that Mother Superior (made of an old wheel full of buckled spokes and a horn) provides keeps it all charming, rather than irritating.
The way Truax's voice raises on the word 'tonight' during Full Moon Over Wowtown, the plucking loops he extricates from his Hornicator during Why Do Dogs Howl At The Moon?, and the acknowledgement of Tom Waits' influence in an aside about a dream where he had a fight with Pomona's greatest son. All of this comes together to create a show that is one third cabaret, one third comedy, and one third torch song.
Always rooting for the underdog (in fact going so far as to invent an entire town seemingly populated by nothing but underdogs - that's my kind of town), The Butterfly And The Entomologist tells its sad story from the butterfly's perspective, and Fat Spider's narrative of an unattached arachnid who's getting bitter about his long term singledom both tell of a writer, and performer, who likes to view life from our old friend, the wry lens. This could easily be done in a po-faced fashion but instead it's doled out with daft glasses, a not particularly musical sounding 'stringaling', jokes with the audience, and, on one occasion, exiting the room entirely to continue on with the song. Self-consciously wacky is anathema to some but Truax's songs are good enough to permit him some leeway on this front. He's never gonna headline the O2 like Cave or Waits but this was another small victory in a career that, nine albums in, has surely been full of small victories.
Thanks to both Valia and Leon for sorting me tickets for this gig. It was a shame you both couldn't be there to enjoy it with me.