Raw, uncompromising and defiantly avant-folk, Getintothis’ Paul Higham reports on an epic Richard Dawson gig – and contemplates the possibility of another Beelzebubbian pact.
Hailing from the North East, a land with a rich and proud history steeped in folk music, comes Richard Dawson. Long exposed to the musical heritage of his native Newcastle, Dawson exploded into popular consciousness last year with the release of Nothing Important on Weird World.
The album, it is fair to say, is at times a difficult listen and has divided opinion. Consisting of a mere four tracks, two of which clock in at around 16 minutes apiece, the LP is powerful and challenging. Intensely personal lyrics are matched to an abrasive and distinctive sounding nylon strung guitar. Sounding brittle, discordant and often appearing to be out of tune (or not tuned at all) his damaged guitar reputedly came back from repair with its peculiarly unique sound. Dawson has used it ever since.
Despite a five-star review in The Guardian, Michael Hann suggested that only time will tell if it’s “a masterpiece or a fraud“. On the evidence of his performance to a rapt Shipping Forecast crowd it is likely that time will be kind to him. If perhaps not quite a masterpiece it will surely rank up there with the likes of Joanna Newsom‘s Ys or Neutral Milk Hotel‘s Aeroplane Over The Sea as an original and singular monument of its era.
Bestriding the stage like a cross between Aidan Moffat and the dishevelled lost brother of the Unthank sisters, Dawson immediately launched into two mesmerising folk recitals. Free from musical adornment his baritone voice, deep and rich, filled the space like Robert Wyatt belting out the Blaydon Races from St James’s Park’s Gallowgate terrace.
Thankfully for those in attendance his voice that had been damaged at an earlier performance in London had been sufficiently restored. Fears that the show might have to be cancelled were thus allayed. The intensity with which he sings, a near visceral howl that strains every sinew of his vocal chords, provided indication of just how much each performance must threaten his voice.
The fragility of his voice mirrors the vulnerability and self-doubt evident in his songs and his performance is one of unrelenting intensity. Every ounce of energy being devoted to the show. Dripping with sweat and steadily removing layers of clothing, the end of each song left Dawson gasping for breath, barely able to continue playing.
When Dawson picked up his guitar, his playing was coruscatingly raw and beautifully harsh. Solely instrumental tracks shone with depth and energy, fraught and emotional, scaldingly and discordantly loud. Very much his own take on the blues, perhaps offering evidence that the Devil can confront you at Geordie roundabouts as well as at Mississippi crossroads.
The heart of the set belonged to The Vile Stuff, an epic narrative most memorable for recounting the injury that resulted from trying to crack open a coconut with a Phillips-head screwdriver. A moment of rare tenderness coupled with a volume-adjusting tweak to his amplifier ushered in Geordie, a Child ballad previously sung by Ewan McColl, Doc Watson and, more recently, Anais Mitchell. Normal service was restored with Poor Old Horse, a disturbing tale of equine cruelty and mutilation.
Throughout Dawson was in genial and charismatic mood. Eccentricly surreal tales of feline escapades, scactalogical hotdogs (you had to be there) and ruminations on the fortunes and form of his beloved Newcastle United kept the audience engagingly entertained.
Yet for all his everyman charm it will be his playing, his voice and his commitment to his art that will be the enduring memory of this most triumphant of performances.
The night was opened by Dave Owen, a singer-songwriter strongly influenced by the American troubadour tradition and very much in the Hayes Carll mould. Owen looked and sounded the part. Denim-shirted and sporting a baseball cap, Owen is not your cowboy-hatted country singer. His influences are very much from the world of outlaw country with tales of hardship, despair and addiction very much to the fore.
With drug misuse very much a current issue in Liverpool, threatening the venues in which live music is performed, set closer Mary Jane reminded of the impact of drugs on man’s emotional well-being. Earlier, his second song transplanted Jesus into the modern day middle east offering a thoughtful response to the intractable conflicts of that region. Far from taking sides, Owen‘s aim was measured equally at Palestinian rockets and Israeli bombs.
Away from the comfort and security of his usual bandmates, Mugstar‘s Pete Smyth was easily the most nervous of tonight’s performers. In a rare solo outing he seemed ill at ease alone on stage, forewarning that his lack of proficiency at between song chat.
His performance, however, amply revealed his nerves to be unnecessary. Dextrous and expansive, his guitar playing was a revelation hinting at atmospheric post-rock soundscapes and often recalling the lo-fi experimentalism of Mount Eerie. His songs offered depth and were reassuringly free from cliché, rarely choosing to follow the obvious lyrical paths. It was, however, the instrumental numbers that shone, allowing his guitar work to take centre stage and enabling the audience to drift contentedly into dream-like reverie.
Pictures by Getintothis’ Vicky Pea.