Review: John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett
Venue: Basement Bar, City Screen, York, Friday, March 22
The year: 1980, the place: The Barge – York’s floating venue, the act: a tall skinny 28 year old with a mop of black hair and both ears pierced – accompanied by a bearded, long haired guitarist. That was my first encounter with John Otway and “Wild Willy” Barrett (real name: Roger).
The two “unlikely lads” paired up in their home town of Aylesbury when Otway decided he wanted to be a pop star, and realised he needed some help from a musician to help his dream come true. But after the 1980 tour the two parted company.
I have been privileged to see Otway in action many times since then, but this was the first time in nearly 33 years I would watch the pair re-united.
The evening was well and truly warmed up by rising York star Mark Wynn – a must see!
I didn’t know what to expect from the headliners. Otway, wearing his traditional white shirt and black trousers – earrings gone, as has most of his hair; Barrett has filled out a bit over the years, his beard now grey, but still sporting a fine long ponytail, topped off with a hat.
As they launched into their first song, Louisa On A Horse, it became clear what attracted Otway to Barrett – he filled the song with some seriously good fiddle playing. Willy’s arsenal for the night included acoustic & electric guitars, the fiddle, a balalaika and a brown wheelie bin.
John recounted a tale (true or not, we may never know) about a gypsy fortune teller who told him that he would indeed become a pop star, with the help of a musician with long blonde hair – who he took to mean Willy. This led into the second song, Gypsy.
Although John Otway is sometimes taken for a joker, and often parodies existing songs, he is a very talented songwriter. Many of the numbers the duo performed were songs of love and lovers lost. One such highlight was a song called The Snowflake Effect – which prompted a great response from the sell-out audience.
That said, Otway is all about having fun. The 61 year old still scampers around like a untrained puppy, seeking – and receiving – adoration from the crowd, with Willy, only two year his elder, taking the parental role – raising his eyebrow and slipping in dry, witty comments in failed attempts to flatten his enthusiasm.
The night was packed with humour, with the interchanges of the two on stage and the content and performance of the songs.
Back in 1980 I heard one of the first performances of a song called Body Talk. Otway has continued to perform this throughout the intervening years, and his performance has also developed. He now packs drum pads into various pockets, which he plays with taps, bumps and thrusts – and augments his musical contribution with the use of a Theramin.
This, paired with Willy playing some rocking electric guitar – and that wheelie bin – produced an exuberant rendition of the song, sounding fresher than it ever did. It is also during this song that, traditionally, Otway rips his shirt open whilst playing. This gig was to be no exception! As shirt buttons flew into the crowd Otway revealed his pale torso without an ounce of fat on it – maybe he works out, maybe it is the energy he puts into his performances, or maybe he just needs a few good meals inside him.
The played all the duo’s hits, er, hit – Cor Baby That’s Really Free, which reached no 27 in the UK charts in 1977. As well as a song which, until Otway explained, you “wouldn’t realise was as brilliant as it actually is”. In a poll of the best music lyrics ever Beware Of The Flowers (Cause I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You Yeh) came in at number 7, just one place behind McCartney’s Yesterday.
Other great songs included their nod to the Cold War, Natasha You’re A Smasher, But You’re Working For Russia, and a song for “anyone whose wife or girlfriend is in prison” – 21 Days, which contains the line “21 days with remission, my baby will be out of prison”.
They closed the night with a song that Willy described as the best Otway has written – Geneve, proving that the duo can write and perform quality songs amongst the frivolities. Though it was a little unnerving to see Willy start sawing chunks out of the guitar he was playing, prior to smashing a hole in it with a hammer!
All in all, a great night with performances from people who obviously enjoy their work.