If his music on record has the beauty, complexity and diversity of birdsong, then David Thomas Broughton’s live performances are the theatrical, chaotic and spontaneous reality of a predatory bird in pursuit of its prey, crossed with the bizarre but endearing courtship display of the male hummingbird. His spectators can observe his rituals and behaviours ceaselessly and can only expect to emerge in a confused state of awe.
This show is not him alone though; tonight Juice Vocal Ensemble join him on stage to showcase their recent collaborative Sliding the Same Way.
The first two songs of the set lead in relatively conventionally, or as much as you could anticipate from someone acclaimed for their unpredictable stage antics. ‘Woodwork’ naturally preludes ‘Yorkshire Fog'; both showcase Broughton’s rich, cooing vocals, but the latter of these songs is given the perfect setting by girls’ crystal a capella.
Soon enough, during the delicate harmonies of ‘Oh, Nurse of Mine’, Broughton turns to a small case brimming with all manner of equipment: a device that emits a monotonous tone akin to that of a heart monitor, another to both distort his voice and to emulate something between flatulence and a toy train, to name a few.
Unpleasant as these additions may sound if taken at surface level, they actually add depth to the performance, particularly for ‘Unshaven Boozer’. Juice Vocal Ensemble’s sound effects on record seem to parrot the subtle voices of the boozer’s drinks: the crack of a can opening, the whispering of a dying froth, the chug and glug of a bottle being emptied, but amongst the bleeping and indiscernible distortions of David’s equipment it could just as well be the mechanics of the industrial town of which the lyrics speak.
As he begins one of two songs in the set from his second album Outbreeding, the girls seem to take a backseat, but this is only meant to lull us into a false sense of security for this is the song to which Broughton refers the following day in a Facebook status, saying “I feel a little violated. But I gave them free reign. So I let myself in for it. Surprises all round!” ‘Nature’ is one of his more energetic songs, so while he is brought into a state of dishevelment, his unaffected stamina is shown to be thoroughly impressive. He performs with his usual intensity and modest plume, like that of a heron, as they unlace his shoes, unbutton his shirt, turn up his collar and swap his watch for one of their own.
Only when he has the appearance of a disorientated fledgling, do Juice turn on the audience, or rather, those of us wearing watches. No longer are we entitled to keep track of time, not only for our watches now embellish the arms of the band, but I think it fair to say we are all lost in delighted befuddlement.
For David Thomas Broughton, anything and everything is a prop, a means to add some everyday surrealism and to baffle audience and musicians alike. His success is most palpable when his simple “Cheers” swiftly plummets us into the realisation that the performance is over – a man humbly potters on the stage as his counterparts lie sprawled across the floor. They rise. No one knows what just happened but titters of joy are to be heard all around as we migrate away from the stage.
All photos by Sarah Dorman