LondonNet Gig Review
The Rebel, and Hazel Leigh & Norton Lees
109 Commercial Street,
Old Spitalfields Market,
London E1 6BG
T: 020 7392 9032
Tube: Liverpool Street or Aldgate East
A Darkened Dowd
Johnny Dowd and his cohorts bring the Spitz to a VH1 "Storytellers"-like
APPROPRIATELY, the Spitz was lit by candles. It created a charming,
but somber mood as the night shifted into the kind of morose-hybrid-country-rock
that might upset angry, Wrangler-men in any proper foot-stomping
cowboy bar. This night lent itself to the darkness. Despite two
impressive and distinct opening acts, the dark mood of the night
and indeed the whole night itself belonged to Johnny Dowd.
Hazel Leigh opened the show bitterly crooning, "Like a witch
with a broken wand, I still love you" in a voice that merged
a more plaintive Sarah McLachlan, with a more country Natalie Merchant.
The rest of her set, also featuring Norton Lees on stand up bass
and back up vocals, never quite lived up to that early, edgy subdued
aggression. Nonetheless, the passionate and introspective "Messy
Head" ended on a high note.
The Rebel hit the stage next, wearing a cowboy hat, thick glasses,
a thick beard, and a suit that looked as though it was the high
point of 80's fashion. He proceeded to silence the crowd by making
a whole lot of avant-garde country blues punk rock noise, and singing
with an accent that mildly resembled an English guy exiled in Texas.
It was difficult to not be immediately endeared to a singer who
has a song with a screamed chorus of "Die, die human scum".
No one was spared from his bizarre, morbid humour, though, which
included a brutal tirade entitled "You're English". The
music was a bastard child of serious American comedy rock, playing
country a la Ween and the Butthole Surfers covering Johnny Cash,
or perhaps simply a more bizarre Hank Williams III. If the audience
had any questions about the Rebel they were answered by his straight-faced,
sarcastic response to hecklers: "My lyrics are usually racist
or misogynist and I can't apply that to the guys over there, so
I don't know what to say."
The Rebel's antics were unforgettable but they paled in comparison
to what was yet to come. In a little over an hour, Johnny Dowd channeled
the collective hearts and souls of countless maverick songwriters
(Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, and Bob Dylan principally) and
made their influences personal with his warm sense of humour, background
visuals of broken family life, and a concept stage show that almost
exclusively dealt with his parents divorce decades earlier. It all
may have seemed a little pretentious, if not for Dowd's overbearing
sincerity which gave the set the feel of a friend having a conversation
about his past with a few songs he wrote interspersed rather than
a distant singer-songwriter.
"It was like the king of England being deposed by Boy George
or something," he chuckled at one point describing his feelings
after the divorce.
Despite a good rapport with the audience and a bit of audience
participation, Dowd's songs still were able to do the most talking.
Whether it was the country/punk snarl of "Temporary Shelter",
an ode to his nomadic childhood, the bizarre juxtaposition of death
and Christmas in "Death comes knocking", or "Easter
Sunday", a song written from the perspective of a divorced
father, Dowd channeled the angst of youth through the prism of mature
retrospective. Even with this theme, he was able to draw from six
years and three albums worth of material.
Far from going at it alone, he was aptly assisted by second guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/long-time
collaborator Brian Wilson (not THAT Brian Wilson), visuals by Kat
Dalton, and of course the spirit of his parents, Jack and Jinx Dowd.
After strangely breaking thematically towards the end of his set
(with an oddly elongated, sludgy cover of "Johnny B. Goode"
with a few Hendrix references thrown in), he avoided closure, but
was able to free himself up for a more diverse encore. The encore
featured one of his older songs that relied heavily on Johnny Cash-style
gallows humour ("Left me hanging there"), and a brilliant,
unreleased groove-oriented anti-war anthem ("Praise God, war
is hell") that ironically twisted up political leaders' rhetoric
into anti-war messages.
Somehow, in a little over an hour, Dowd managed to turn his set
into a more real version of VH1 "Storytellers" and let
a few hundred people into his life for a look around with incredible
songs to back him up and keep things moving. There was no sorrow
for those who did not come from broken homes, just a bit more understanding.