“Everybody keep your eye on this mic stand,” says Richard Dawson, half stern-faced, half-giggled, as he gestures towards the offending article that’s innocently standing on stage in the Black Box. “It might transmogrify,” he enlightens us. And with a sense of bumble he launches into his first song of the show, ‘We Shepherds are the Best of Men’.
It’s a mind game, it must be. The jovial, bespectacled Dawson, talking weird science and eluding to not really having a clue what he’s doing. Then fearlessly propelling a capella at us from up there, loud and bare to the bone and fascinating, benefitting from the scrapes and claws in his voice. Not aiming for a flawless performance, not one shit is given about that. He wants it human. He wants it to make the sounds that scratch at our emotions, that cast doubt, build intrigue, spin threads. This is more about running head first into a piece that is going to make us feel something. Make us listen hard and piece it together.
As he introduces the next song, from his latest record, Peasant, I realise how important all this is. It slowly becomes clear why the raw human in his performance is needed to present the characters from this album. On the face of it he’s made a record about a medieval village. Personally that sounds as dreadful as it does mildly interesting. Needless to say there’s more to it than that though. Awash with miscreants and spells, prostitutes and priests, hardship and cold, Dawson wanted to give the individuals named in the song titles the same wants and needs that we have today. The basic joys, hopes, ambitions, and hurts. A soldier whose “heart is full of dread.” The simple ache for forgiveness from the beggar. That soldier though, he also has a heart full of hope. That beggar has felt the warmest, the most loyal of loves. Dawson’s very distinct style of songwriting gathers all this together. His performance, with the raw a capella, guitar, eccentric storytelling, humour and homeliness, that lays it all out for us in the Black Box tonight.
As a teenager Dawson fell waist deep into Iron Maiden and he reckons that listening to heavy music first, made other musics easier to take on board. The music he produces today is at once Avant-garde and experimental. From Sufi devotional, to drone, free improv, to hip-hop, if he wants it he’ll use it. But that hankering for heavy metal has never gone away you know. When he asks for requests in the Black Box, one that stands out to him is ‘Iron Man’ and he responds accordingly with the riff on his electric guitar, accompanied by Matt Baty on drums and Johnny Hedley on bass. Indeed his guitar playing shifts from discordant to scuzzy to vaguely hypnotic as the songs shift and the night progresses.
In ‘Weaver’ – from Peasant – his shapeshifter voice offers up truly impressive prog rock high scream vocals. But ‘Weaver’ too is a fine example of his words. His extraordinary words. As otherworldly as they are mundane and practical.
“I steep the wool in a cauldron
Of pummelled gall-nuts afloat in urine”
Who the hell writes that in a song? Richard Dawson obviously. He’s sifted through old books and websites to make this as correct as it sounds. Those lines present piss and squashed things in a steaming pot. Christ, I can almost smell it. Compare them however to these lines, also from ‘Weaver.’
“Lavenders an echo of the beeswing
Dazzling foxgloves ashake in the salty wind”
He’s obviously adept at carrying us to whatever sense or feeling he wants to. His stories between songs on the night are another example of this. He’s hilarious; to the degree that drummer Matt Baty has a fit of the giggles as Dawson spins a tale of touring with Black Sabbath in the ’70s and staying in a hamster hotel, dropping in details of lion slippers, Ozzy Osbourne, and hamster wheels.
‘Wooden Bag’ is played, with its words that catch you in the chest, in their beauty and also in their mundanity, conjuring up the minutiae that create memory. After listing the Anadin Extra, Ladbrokes pens, contraceptive pills, and highland toffee found in the bag, he goes on to sing of “The smell of the ocean/In a used handkerchief”, encapsulating every reason why we cannot dispose of the detritus left behind by loved ones, much missed. I have never heard this caught so vitally before.
Highlight of the night though is ‘The Vile Stuff’. “If you’re not enjoying this,” he tells us by way of warning, “the next song is at least 12 minutes long.” This is a magnificent song, the chronicle of a school trip that gets very, very messy. Developing whole characters in one line, not holding back on the sticky, gobby, detail.
“Blood, snot and curry coalesce in the corners of my nails
My friends drifting away from me”
Dawson puts in earplugs for this number. It gets loud, it gets wonderfully loud. And as he stands at the mic singing that story and playing his guitar, drummer Matt Baty plays rhythmically, eyes on Dawson.
“3 empty cans of Castlemaine XXXX
Go rolling down my trouser leg”
When not employed at points during the song, bassist Johnny Hedley stands eyes closed, arms straight, knees bending and straightening with the music. Then he’s back, folded over the guitar as he’s bending and plucking.
“The milk of amnesia fills my cup and back into the hole I go”
The drums and guitars become an arrhythmic heartbeat, I notice the man beside me shifting to the irregular rhythm. Then Dawson can’t help himself. To the room’s delight he kicks in once again with the strains of ‘Iron Man,’ and his band mates join in. When the last of those 12 or so minutes plays out they leave the stage. There’ll be no encore, we know that. Too much just happened there to expect more. I’ve used this word already, but I have to use it again. This gig was extraordinary.