When Richard Dawson takes the stage at Hove’s The Old Market, the first thing he does is talk. Of course, anecdotes and small history lessons are par-for-the-course at folk gigs so, in itself, this is no great surprise. In the same way that Dawson is no normal folk artist, however, his chat plots no such familiar territory. Communicating with his audience in a way which is refreshingly free of pretension, Dawson’s chat is effortlessly humorous in an often disjointed, surreal way. Throughout the night the rowdy humour and vague explanations of his often complex songs that he veers between are both natural and compelling. At a moment when his bassist’s amplifier unexpectedly stops, he fills what otherwise would have been dead air with a set of knowingly cheesy jokes – culminating in Dawson’s questioning “how do you titillate an Ocelot?” before the punchline of “you oscillate its tit a lot” – delivered by an eager audience member – is met to much good-natured groaning from the audience. Such lighthearted banter may seem incongruous with the depth and gravity of Dawson’s music, but it’s indicative of a subtle irreverence that shapes his work for the best.
That streak of subtle humour is present throughout Dawson’s set tonight and grounds an often dazzlingly ambitious set of songs. Set closer ‘The Vile Stuff’ is an absolute joy; some 15 minutes of pounding, tribal repetition and wild-eyed, raging improvisation that – pivotally – never quite takes itself seriously enough to become self indulgent. The half gritty, half surreal set of lyrics that accompany the song – featuring such charming lines as “blood, snot and curry coalesce in the corners of my nails” – elicit more than a few chuckles from the audience, a perhaps unexpected reaction to such dark, modal intensity but an entirely warranted one – as a cursory glance at the song’s lyrics will attest.
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Dawson is ultimately a perverter of folk music; both in attitude and sonics. It’s misleading to call him a folk artist in any normal parameter of the phrase, but he does at least exist on the fringe of the style. A handful of a-cappella ballads are dotted throughout the setlist and they’re absolutely mesmerising; it’s here where Dawson is most in keeping with the folk style, weaving rich tapestries with nothing more a few choice words and the sheer presence and power of his voice. The bulk of the set, however, exists outside of any particular style; the eccentricities and oddities alluded to on album – most recently the superb ‘Peasant’ (review here) – are turned up to 11 here. Dawson certainly wields his guitar deftly but it’s played with ferocity hinted at, but not fully present, on the album. At numerous points he gives himself over to the frenetic shredding – powerful blasts of distorted noise assault the airwaves with grievous intensity. It’s innately compelling stuff; Dawson’s uncanny knack for complexity in his songs means that his set tonight never lacks the brains to go along with the hefty brawn of his frantically caressed guitar and the rhythm section’s relentless determination.
With any body of work as nuanced as Dawson’s there’s always the risk that the context of a live show will rob the songs of some of their sophistication. While it’s true that not every ornate touch found on ‘Peasant’ is to be heard tonight, there’s an almost surprising degree of sonic richness present – no doubt thanks to the 7 piece band, including three excellent backing vocalists. One of the most striking characteristics of ‘Peasant’ was the swelling, articulate melodic rushes – backing vocals frequently carved their way through dense waves of instrumentation, a clear melodic beacon in an often otherwise oblique set of songs. To lose that live would be to lose an intrinsic part of what makes ‘Peasant’ such a great album; fortunately the three backing vocalists tonight have little trouble representing the much larger choir found on the album.
The interplay between the singsong clarity of the backing vocals and Dawson’s own compellingly rough howl is fascinating in itself but it’s the melodies and counter-melodies that dance between the two, which really highlight the vocal talents of all on stage. At one point Dawson tells us that he’s lost his falsetto – his own vocal melodies meander up and down the scale with gleeful abandon, one moment taking him from his deepest lows and then to his most ecstatic highs. It is indeed true that his falsetto is a little rough tonight, with some notes cracking under pressure but the rest of his range is in fine form and he soldiers through any slight issues with admirable drive and style. A brief technical issue – a dodgy guitar lead – is likewise handled impressively; Dawson treating the crowd to an impromptu a-cappella folk song while he waits for a replacement lead.
Richard Dawson is a genuinely unique artist, with an attitude that’s difficult to pigeonhole or sometimes even quantify. His live show succeeds not only for the innate quality of the songs that constitute it but for the way in which Dawson plucks out the most vibrant, vitriolic aspects of his recorded output and highlights them, resulting in a sound not unlike that of his album – just heavier and more exploratory. Although the bulk of the set is made up from ‘Peasant’ cuts – a fiery take on ‘Ogre’ a particular standout – it’s set closer ‘The Vile Stuff’ – perhaps his single strongest song – that stands as the best representation of his live ethos. At every turn of it’s 15 minutes, it throws something unexpected at the audience; be it the spaced-out improvisations of a reverb drenched violin or a hectic drum solo, Dawson and his band certainly can’t be accused of underplaying tonight. Once the song is over, no one in the audience has the gall to call out for more. It’s not that anyone tonight is left unimpressed by the set – far from it – but after such a physically and sonically gruelling set, it seems churlish to demand more.
Even if a few psyches are left battered by the sheer intensity of the set that Dawson and his band unleashed upon Hove, it’s a pleasant ache. Richard Dawson has proved unequivocally that the rich, full bodied arrangements of his recent work not only successfully translate to the stage but do so with flying colours.