Rychard Carrington reports on John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett– The Junction 2, Cambridge 23 April 2008

John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett – The Junction 2, Cambridge 23 April 2008


I calculate that I've seen John Otway live about forty times, which is more often than I've seen any other act live, even Robyn Hitchcock. This in itself makes Otway gigs special to yours truly. But they really are so obviously special for everyone - even for punters who've never heard of him, who might have wandered into the venue by mistake.

For longstanding fans Otway gigs are a reaffirmation of faith. We re-declare our allegiance to the heroic loser - the self-styled ‘rock'n'roll's greatest failure' - who constantly defies the cool and the sensible with a gauchely inventive originality and a proud clowning that inverts self-deprecation in a glorious somersault that ends with our hero collapsed on a sore butt. Who cannot warm to the man? Who cannot identify their own inner Otway?

Otway has long boasted - albeit with exaggeration - that ‘the set remains the same'. We know the score and we love it. But tonight was different, for he was reunited with another formidably idiosyncratic individual, Wild Willy Barrett. One senses that Barrett is actually the wilder individual, but in a withdrawn way that can appear rather menacing. Barrett does things his way, wears his cynicism on his sleeve, but what lurks behind the deep-set, puzzled but wise stare? Nothing very normal, that's for sure.

While Otway so unashamedly needs to be loved, Barrett is contemptuously indifferent to adulation and hostility alike. He won't play along with anybody - certainly not Otway. So from the start the interpersonal energy was quite different from that Otway enjoys with his usual henchmen, most notable of whom being the commendable shaggy electric guitarist Richard Holgarth. Otway makes a joke; Barrett is not amused. This doesn't sound like a rehearsed routine. One remembers why they split with such regularity. Clearly it was a challenge to make such an atmosphere work, but before too long it as evident that they were succeeding.

The Last of the Mexicans set the tone: a punk number performed with Barrett playing soft nylon-string guitar and whistling, as Otway pogoes up and down and sings in his peculiarly fetching, not very musical voice. It was that voice, I think, that first attracted me to the duo, back in 1977. Soon, though, I discovered much more to charm and intrigue, before Otway's quirky-loser-clown-with-a-grin persona was honed into the conscious base of his act and appeal. Firstly, Barrett's genuine, versatile proficiency as an acoustic instrumentalist added an unusual melodic delicacy to what was essentially a rock act. Secondly, numerous modest lyrical peculiarities, as in their most commercially successful number, Really Free:

I go running to my bedroom,
Tell me honey, that's not good for me,
I find your ma is singing on the telly,
I say ‘cor baby, that's really free!'

A minor hit which, as everyone now acknowledges, was surpassed in quality by its exuberant, anthemic, nonsensical B-side Beware of the Flowers (‘cause I'm Sure They're Going To Get You, Yeh) - a rock monument that far, far surpasses both Stairway To Heaven and Anarchy in the UK.

Thirdly, Otway's raw sincerity added a passionate verve to the upbeat numbers. Tonight, while the ballads were certainly enjoyed, it was these which constituted the highlights of the show, with just a rude amplification for Barrett's guitar easily compensating for lack of rock backing: Last of the Mexicans, Beware of the Flowers, Racing Cars and the wonderful Birthday Boy. People debate the greatest ever Christmas pop song, but this gets my vote for the greatest ever birthday number:

The day has come, you're still alive, you're going to carry on.
You're having a big party with all you're friends along.
They're all going to laugh and cheer the moment you walk in -
‘Who's a lucky birthday boy!' - everybody's going to sing.

Other highlights were a banjo-led Two Little Boys; a theremin and guitar jam; and the grand ballad Geneve, with the original hundred-piece orchestra replaced by Barrett on totally knackered guitar, which he eventually destroyed percussively with saw and hammer,

In fact the gig was rather like the ones they played in their commercial heyday in the late seventies and early eighties, with most of the numbers hailing from that era. The repertoire would seem on paper to fall between stalls - the classy and the goofy, the poignant and the daft - yet it works, in an edgily odd sort of way.

The unique talents of Otway and Barrett are too large not to merit full focus in their own right: I'm glad their separate careers are continuing (Barrett with his extraordinary folk band, Sleeping Dogz), but it's particularly fascinating when two skewiff, idiosyncratic talents combine successfully, in a skewiff, idiosyncratic sort of way.

Wryter: Rychard Carrington