John Otway

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John Otway at the Zephyr Lounge

Review

There can be few contemporary musicians who are held in as much affection by audiences as John Otway who performed at the Zephyr Lounge on Saturday 28th October 2017. His extraordinary  45+ year career has seen his first album produced by Pete Townshend,  two hit singles a quarter of a century apart ("Really Free" in 1977 and "Bunsen Burner" in 2002), cramming 1,000 fans into Abbey Road "(it's a real studio you know" he confided in us) to provide massed heckles on his version of "House of the Rising Sun", filling the Albert Hall and attempting a world tour by chartered jet ("Otair") taking in gigs at Carnegie Hall & Sydney Opera House (it didn't happen and like many of his projects, incurred significant debts). All this has however made for the acclaimed  documentary "Rock and Roll's Greatest Failure: Otway the Movie".

On this occasion, John was playing solo, without his legendary collaborator Wild Willy Barrett, playing two sets without support act, aided only by his roadie & foil "Deadly". Opening with the double whammy of "Really Free" and its incredible B side" Beware of the Flowers (‘Cause I'm Sure They're Going To Get You: Yeah)", John (pictured here kindly demonstrating his support for Coventry Music Museum) just held the large audience enthralled & delighted. Classic Otway tracks followed each other: a huge personal favourite of mine "Poetry & Jazz", "Bunsen Burner", "Josephine", "Cheryl" "Louisa on a Horse" "Headbutts", "Body Talk" "Middle of Winter" etc plus his inimitable versions of other people's work: "Crazy Horses" (demonstrating his theremin skills), "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet", "Blockbuster", "House of the Rising Sun" & "I Will Survive". Once you have heard the Otversions, you may find it difficult to return to the originals with the same state of mind...

The joys of his act include his own abundant enthusiasm and good humour and the theatricality of the performances: still performing gymnastics (including off a stepladder) at 65, microphone & forehead abuse on "Headbutts" (though the doll prop which had earlier appeared during "Rumpelstiltskin" performed the final one), percussion pads secreted about his person on "Body Talk", a home made neck support for a mic on "Louisa on a Horse", his double necked guitar for right & left handed playing ("it's called a twelve string") etc etc. However one should not let the comedy obscure both the intelligence of invention & quality of writing: on the really affecting numbers such as "Poetry & Jazz" and "Josephine", Otway performs them relatively straight to equally good effect.Included tonight were two newer numbers from his latest (after a decade long break) album "Montserrat" (guess where that was recorded): he joked that after the hurricane & volcano, his arrival represented the third natural disaster to hit the island. Notwithstanding this, if the two tracks are representative of the whole, he has made a fine return with melodic material which offers something of a reflection on his life so far. 

The contemporary music industry is not an easy fit for mavericks like John Otway who choose to produce music in their own way & to their own values, without seeking to ape trends & to prostitute themselves to demographics. It is small wonder that he has tended to work most closely with fellow outsiders like Wild Willy Barrett, Attila the Stockbroker, Wilko Johnson  and the late Viv Stanshall. It is a shame as he offers diversity which is usually lacking from the commercial scene, humour & wit (ditto) and intelligence (again ditto). He enjoys a passionate following & is regarded as a cult figure, albeit one with two chart singles to his name. However I suspect that anyone who normally restricts their gig going to mainstream acts would enjoy John Otway as much as I do....

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