Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson
There seems to be a buzz at the moment surrounding North East singer-songwriter Richard Dawson’s latest album release Peasant, which is receiving major media attention, a four-page feature in the July edition of Uncut magazine no less and his song “Ogre” being included on the covermount CD. Tonight this rather unassuming and mildly shambolic character ambled onstage at the Howard Assembly Room, flanked by his five-piece band featuring Angharad Davies on violin, Dawn Bothwell and Sally Pilkington on chorus vocals, each dressed in black with the splash of colour in the ash leaf branches hanging from their necks, together with Matthew Baty on drums and Johnny Hedley on bass, both of the band Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs and both in black but ditching the botanical decoration. Dawson looked for all intents and purposes as if he could have left his fruit and veg delivery lorry outside in the street, wearing a rather ‘lived-in’ denim jacket and patchwork tweed baseball cap perched upon his head, both of which would soon be discarded as the set proceeded. Opening with a confident reading of the seventeenth century ballad “A Parents Address to His First Born Son on the Day of His Birth”, performed a cappella with some ethereal hums from the chorus singers, Dawson flexed his vocal muscles to great effect. Picking up a newly acquired mahogany Sigma miniature acoustic, which still had the label hanging from its neck, Dawson revealed that his bassist had recently put his foot through his other guitar. “It’s not a nightmare Johnny, accidents happen, accidents happen” he reassured his band mate. The new guitar, tuned down to an even lower register to that of Martin Carthy, and at times reminiscent of Joseph Spence’s ‘slack key’ style, was put through it’s paces on “Soldier” and in particular “Weaver”, which followed, being one of the most exciting and theatrical performances of the night. There’s more rough edges to Richard Dawson than the bark of a three hundred year old oak, yet it all seems right somehow. Dawson claimed that it’s a momentous time for him personally, with all the recent exposure and radio interviews and such like, which he admitted he’s not at all used to. Evidently pretty used to criticism by now though, Dawson took time to fiddle with his smartphone to read extracts from some of the more venomous criticism in his growing collection, such as “He sounds like a very amateur or very drunk guitar player, whose vocal ability is even less honed than his guitar playing ability and his lyrics are incomprehensible”. Once again returning to unaccompanied fare, Dawson chose the traditional “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter”, citing Mike Waterson as the source, with a clear and utterly passionate reading of the song. Why the chap in the third row decided to get up halfway through the performance is beyond me; perhaps to replenish his glass, take a pee or to have a good cry, it’s anyone’s guess really. With bewilderment, I reach hopefully for a reasonable excuse, that he was a doctor responding to his pager. There’s been talk of a similarity between Dawson and Robert Wyatt and I guess this pertains to the high octave vocals that Dawson strives for occasionally. This is most apparent on “Beggar”, one of Dawson’s strongest songs in terms of originality and daring. Whereas those particular notes identify Wyatt’s fragility, by contrast in Dawson’s case they demonstrate his strength. This is also where some of those rough edges and cracks appear the clearest, but as Leonard Cohen famously pointed out, this is where the light comes in. Earlier someone called for “Ogre”, which Dawson deliberately misheard as Ocre, and offered the opening verse of a song from his imagined ‘Salad’ album – “It’s so hard to get the greens every day, I just don’t like them.” In order to draw breath, Dawson once again returned to his collection of bad reviews. After reading a review which compared Dawson to Roy Harper’s Stormcock period, one reviewer wrote: “if Harper had lost both hands in a freak industrial accident, being forced to play his 12 string guitar with his feet.. etc” I think we started to get the picture. The anthemic Ogre, which wouldn’t really be out of place on Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels soundtrack, was received with just rewards. Highly theatrical, sinewy, noisy and heart-thumpingly exciting, the performance couldn’t have been further from the earlier Mike Waterson song, yet both seem to fit together so perfectly in the same set. Closing with “The Vile Stuff”, from the earlier Nothing Important album, the almost Neanderthal stomper of a performance saw Dawson at his most animated, testing the strength of the boards with an electrifying performance of fire and passion. During Dawson’s acknowledgements, the singer mentioned that it was a real honour to be on the road with supporting singer/musician Afework Nigussie. Accompanying himself on a traditional one-string bowed instrument, the Masenko, a hollow square or diamond-shaped box, with decorative lathed wooden neck and cruciform cross piece used to tune the single string, the Ethiopian musician encouraged the audience to clap along to some of his songs, which they dutifully did. Dressed in traditional costume, the musician brought to Leeds a sense of his own ancestry in six engaging indigenous songs, effectively putting the cherry on top of a really quite excellent and unusual night.