We did a ‘Secret Santa’ this Xmas here at Barre Towers. Someone, one of the kids I expect, in the guise of Kris Kringle, put a copy of Newcastle ‘folk singer’ Richard Dawson’s latest recording, Peasant, in my sack of goodies. This being the new year, and in the accompanying spirit of celebration (mainly because 2017, the year of ‘The Donald and ‘Fake News’ is finally over) I want to offer a blog that features one of this island’s most interesting and unusual young songwriters and musicians.
I first came across Dawson in, I think, 2012, at a gig at The Vortex. He was the support for Alasdair Roberts, another of my fave young UK folk musicians. Or maybe it was Trembling Bells? Whatever, Dawson played a blinding set, examples of which are available to view and hear on YouTube. I bought a copy of his album off the man himself, a very friendly and approachable chap, and duly noted the very DIY artwork on the CD artwork, an approach which I hope he keeps up. He was an initially slightly underwhelming presence on stage, shortish, straggly bear, not thin, with a Chuck Berry duck walk and a voice that is, shall we say, vernacular in tone, range and content. Listening to Dawson makes me realise, if such a realisation was really necessary, what a great debt singers owe to Bob Dylan, in terms of our acceptance of ‘singers who can’t sing’. Dawson’s voice, especially when straining for the high notes, can strip wallpaper. It takes some adjustment, the same adjustment that is needed, if not more so, than initially coming across,say, Will Oldham, who is a singer-songwriter who he has been compared to. I would add Roy Harper and Tim Buckley to the list of possible hymn-book sharers. This Tyneside bard brooks few peers though, and his sound is unmistakable, warts n’all, and I, and many others it would seem, have grown to love his voice, his lyrics, his guitar playing.
The latter is a joy. He plays, I think, nylon strings, which he hits hard during his arpeggiated solo and backing playing, with an accompanying hum and rattle. This creates, along with his wayward discursiveness and aberrant phrasing, a soundworld not dissimilar to Derek Bailey. Links to free improv are reinforced by the appearance n his albums by free stalwarts Rhodri and Angharad Davies (and even with their dad John on Peasant). The apogee of this playing (and the key tack of them all in my humble opinion) is The Vile Stuff, an eleven minute creation that occupies most of Side Two of the third album Nothing Important (2014). This gem describes a dysfunctional school trip, and has to be heard to believed, avant-folk of the highest order, with some stunningly unusual guitar. The version that he played in Amsterdam (on YouTube again) resulted in his guitar becoming completely de-tuned by the end of the number, with Dawson reduced to crouching by his amp, trying to make some sort of sense out of a song which has essentially destroyed itself. Marvellous stuff, the modern day version of the smashing of the amps.
So, vox and box briefly described, the final part of the triumvirate of Dawson’s grab bag of tricks is his lyrics. I am somewhat reminded of a less wordy David Tibet, with his arcane vocabulary and archaic diction. Dawson’s latest especially, features outmoded words and expressions to create a rough and rather fanciful facsimile of medieval Britain, featuring a set of archetypical characters, the soldier, the prostitute, the weaver, the scientist, the beggar, who each tell their at times esoteric and other-wordly tales, several with a decidedly mystical bent. The first album, The Magic Bridge (which is aptly titled!), featuring Dawson’s early, and more down-to-earth songs and lyrics, is also interleaved with short , gnomic instrumentals. These areslightly reminiscent, to this listener, of The Magic Band’s brief guitar instrumental interludes, played by the likes of Zoot Horn Rollo and Gary Lucas (yes, he’s that good!).
I could write much more on this most interesting artist, but will let the reader follow up these leads. Peasant is a development from his early work, featuring more opaque lyrics but more conventionally-listenable vocals, set among a more developed overall sound, with a seven-piece vocal choir as well as the Davies’ harp and violin. The album’s concept of medieval dialect and subject matter gives it a coherence that the previous three perhaps lacked, but without the onerous burden of having to be seen as ‘a concept album’. I am very much looking forward to seeing where he takes his muse next, and very much recommend experiencing him in the live situation.