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LondonNet Clubs Guide

LondonNet Gig Review

Johnny Dowd
The Rebel, and Hazel Leigh & Norton Lees


The Spitz
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 culmination.

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.

Steve Marshall


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