“Sorry for those at the back who can’t see me,” comes a jovial Geordie accent from somewhere below the stage. “It’s a short hairy midget with bad clothes on, that’s what you’re missing.” The crowd howls. Richard Dawson begins his set of beguiling, mangled folk songs in the crowd, onlookers parted around him, the tip of his grandad cap just visible. You can feel his spit and his eyes clenched shut as his athletic voice recounts the gruesome maiming of, as the song title goes, a Poor Old Horse.
This is Dawson’s gift as a performer. On record – notably his critically acclaimed 2014 album Nothing Important – his tales of the Bible, death and madness are dark and delightfully odd. Live he is endearing and ramshackle, deliberating over which songs to play, offering out strawberries, doing impressions from Driving Miss Daisy and cracking witty asides (“I put Jeremy Corbyn on the guest list. He didn’t come”). If the half-full venue isn’t hushed in awe, it has more laughter than you’ll find at a standup comedy gig.
Dawson says he’s suffering from throat problems, but you wouldn’t know it. Throughout his unhinged blues – all detuned-yet-rich guitar sound, blistering finger-picking and relentless feedback drone – he leaps from gravelly lows to choir-boy highs. His songs, some based on 18th-century poems or 19th-century Tyneside yarns, give the sense of an olden-day storyteller rousing highwaymen and deserters to clang their tankards of stout, like music’s answer to Ben Wheatley.
But his music isn’t alienating. Dawson delivers poetry with brutal intensity – and you hang on his every word. “I give it a seven out of 10 at best,” he says as his set draws to a close. “It’s not a 10.” Yes, Richard Dawson, it really is.
- At the Kazimier, Liverpool, on 16 September. Then touring.