LIVE REVIEW: Richard Dawson, The Barbican, London

Richard Dawson feeling it at the Barbican Hall on Sunday, October 25th, photographed by Mark Allan

YOU HAVE to take your hat off to everyone at the Barbican – and, as we were told by Erland Cooper in the very first of these sessions – a mystery benefactor, who made a substantial donation, allowing this autumn series of Live at the Barbican shows to take place – there’s a whole variety of artists still to play, including two of the cream of current British jazz crop, Shabaka Hutchings and Nubiya Garcia.

It seems live-streamed shows are our absolute present, certainly our near future; and as more and more acts embrace this detached novelty, you have to give absolute props to The Barbican for doing such a beautiful job of the filming and presentation – it’s of concert DVD standard; such a multiplicity of angles, pans, pull-shots, close-ups. A singer straight to wobbly webcam this sure as hell ain’t.

This Sunday evening gone, The Barbican welcomed Newcastle outsider folk visionary Richard Dawson; a man who’s stood his creative ground and waited for the world to come over to his place. You’ll probably remember the first time you heard him; I do. It was a track from Peasant being played on 6Music on a Sunday afternoon, somewhere around the Blackdown Hills on the A303.

“What the f**k was that?” I remember exclaiming to my partner as his fresh, raw, personal aesthetic woke me up from a white-line trance. Like olives, I wasn’t sure outright whether I liked it; I just knew I needed to hear more. And more. And hmmm, curious … OK, just another few, please. Until you realise you’re in the presence of a very marked genius with the most heartfelt communicative presence. And boy, did he ever send shivers down the proverbial bunch of bones at his show on Sunday gone.

Richard Dawson, photographed by Mark Allan, courtesy The Barbican

Which Richard will we get? Vital, raw, out-folk troubadour, wrestling the very soul from his guitar and his body? Yes: that one. He arrives alone, no added musicians to flesh out his sound, bow tie and tails for the big London night out dispensed with in favour of a trackie top and a T-shirt for the fragile and gorgeous Finnish band Circle.

Like all performers we’ve seen so far, he seems to pinch himself to make sure he’s not dreaming to be in front of a real, breathing audience (The Barbican containing, for the night’s event, 300 socially distanced audience members in a venue which in better times would hold nearly 2,000). “How do you do this again? To be surrounded by people, it’s nuts,” he affirms, before launching straight into the a capella medievalism of “The Felon’s Song”.

He has this way of really getting inside the raw and unmediated experience of whichever true folk he chooses to render in song. The fear and the dirt and the self-pity ring out in his raw and wonderful holler: “I was placed in chains / My legs gave out, my legs gave out … bodies, maggot riddled and possessed”. Be glad he ventures back into this vile world of vile stuff, so we don’t have to; but feel the raw sweaty humanity of the experience connected back across the centuries, verging toward automatic art, tapping into the gristle of the eternal.

And in a beautiful bit of sequencing,  he reminds us of our own contemporary medieval macabre as he picks up a rather sexy, frankly, Burns guitar for “Civil Servant”, from last year’s sticky state of the nation burrowing, 2020. We’re still in the bonds of wage slavery, we rue the alarm; we wolf down bowls of Ready Brek, and “all over the city, we arise, we arise … let’s linger awhile in the smoking cupboard”. It’s a beautiful chordal slurry; I’d like to know what tuning he uses, what string is detuned for that grrrrr gnarl he wrings into our chests; and that falsetto crescendo that seals things. 

Photograph by Mark Allan, courtesy The Barbican

“I’m glad I got the nervous first bit out of the way,” he confesses, and well, if that’s the sound of a man with nerves; and steers us into the precise vignettes of “We Picked Apples In The Graveyard Freshly Mown” which, self-deprecatingly, is a mere budget version against fellow Northumbrians The Unthanks’ take, classing it as akin to Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower” – the definitive take. Mind you, you have to say that’s one hell of a pastoralist song title. It’s full of the sharpest lyrical turns, those quotidian moments captured and those otherly, transcendental ones, too: “Next door’s cat is a river of smoke around my ankles … the screech of a fox in the street carrying your soul in its teeth.” That other world, the whole palimpsest of past experience and myth, it’s just a scratch of the flimsy present away

“Two Halves”, maybe the best football song to arise from the supporting classes since The Fall’s “Kicker Conspiracy”, writing the true folk of our post-industrial times – a song that one day will be curated at Cecil Sharp House – tees us up for “The Queen’s Head”, in which our Richard-as-protagonist is called back to the flooded family pub: he incants over that thrillingly detuned guitar: “There’s a crowd gathered ’round the fat headed butcher / Who’s back on his soap box again /Bemoaning the lack of adequate flood defences / Somehow putting it down to an insurge of benefit-scrounging immigrants.” Make no mistake, these songs will be the set texts of the future.

Photograph by Mark Allan, courtesy The Barbican

He had paused, tweaked the setlist, had set out to lead us through the epic 12-minute a capella of “Joe The Quilt Maker”, that harrowing unearthing from newspaper clippings, detailing the fall and fall of a Hexham craftsman; again, the self-effacing humour, as he comments “If any of this is getting bit grating,  now would be a good times to make a cup of tea, have a poo.” Which would be a wholly unsensible idea since he’s hitting his stride now, inside the music, living every second of Joe the everyman’s fall towards death; although solo vocal, it still manages to imply a macabre lurch of swingtime; while, back at the graveside, “Nobody is looking each other in the eyes / At the funeral of Joe the quilt-maker. Wouldn’t it just be the best soundtrack to an animation directed by Tim Burton if he kept the surreal delight in the dark, and maybe jettisoned the cute? Now there’s an idea. By the end, when he straps on his acoustic, much stepped-on acoustic, he’s breathless, you’re almost worried, so much has he given from every fibre for the evocation of this song. 

To rest that throat, we detour into an instrumental; “I’m alright, but I’m just worried about your minds,” he jokes. And he leads us through the polluted, snapping, growling Northumbrian blues of “Judas Iscariot”.

Photograph by Mark Allan, courtesy The Barbican

“Fresher’s Ball” has a real airy fragility, the sadness of the delivering parent marking a huge life shift contrasting with the absolute placidity and happiness of the bushy-tailed new student. “Tears begin to fall on the outskirts of Leeds … I stopped for a coffee at Scotch Corner / I called to see if  she was doing OK / She gently laughed at my foolishness. Watching Match of the Day that night I was bereft … “

A surprise drop is a really gently handled cover of Tom Waits’ “Fish And Bird”. Imagine, if you would, the wonky delights of a collaborative album twixt the two.

As we began, so shall we end, and another dreich and sorrowful picaresque is given to us from The Glass Trunk in the shape of “A Ghost Of A Tree”, in which the motley, unknown band journey through “raindrops are falling like the bars of a jail / Buried in the arsehole of the world.” He’s eyes-shut in an historic dystopian rapture, bending into the song, feeling that cramping of the guts. And he’s holding nothing, absolutely nothing, of his soul back. Not. A. Drop.

And he’s gone.

Live from the Barbican continues until December 13th, and tickets are available for both live attendance and livestream. For the remaining concerts, please visit the season’s webpage, here.

Photograph by Mark Allan, courtesy The Barbican
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