The lead-up up to Christmas riffs hard on the theme of tradition. All those nordic evergreens and new world turkeys are recent imports falsely claimed as deep heritage. On stage, by contrast, a harried-looking man from the north-east is hollering a cappella, heralding a firstborn son into the world with vein-bulging joy, and no little trepidation (“what perils thou must pass through!”). In between songs, he asks us to remind him that he’s put his glasses on his amp.
You wish the NHS could somehow provide folk singer Richard Dawson – and his trio of hypnotic backing vocalists – at every delivery. A Parent’s Address to a Firstborn Son on the Day of His Birth is not an easy listen, but it is a mighty incantation that welcomes the “stranger” of the lyric, and the audience to the gig, doubling as a palate cleanser to banish the saccharine and the mellifluous. Pumping his arm as though to drag more sound out of himself, Dawson unleashes a stentorian bellow that would pin the entire crowd to the back wall even if he put the microphone down.
He straps on an electric guitar for a song set in the year “600 or 700”. This is Soldier, from Dawson’s latest album, Peasant, released in June. It finds a miserable conscript thinking of his sweetheart, vowing never again to draw blade. “Let’s betroth without delay, pack the horse and ride away,” the deserter agonises. It’s a Bruce Springsteen song in all but timeframe, with Angharad Davies’s violin providing an abstracted, icy chill rather than conventional musical accompaniment.
Births, deaths and the harrowing stuff in between fill Dawson’s songs, which – six solo albums in – span concerns both timeless (Peasant is set in the dark ages) and pointedly modern (his older stuff is full of Peperami and staffie crosses).
Inevitably, we call what Dawson does “folk music” – the addition tonight of harpist Rhodri Davies and violinist Angharad Davies add their strings to that chorus. But as a few bars of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man later hint, Dawson came to the dramatically sung tales of suffering people through heavy metal, and working in record shops in his native Newcastle. He cites the Sufi devotional music qawwali as an influence, and counts Sleaford Mods as fellow travellers. Tonight he’ll humorously recite a bit of Roy Orbison’s I Drove All Night, emphasising the dodginess of the lyrics. Marcus Mumford he is not.
Even to fans of non-mainstream sounds, the barriers to loving Dawson’s work are high. It takes time to acclimatise to his uneven voice, which spans a baritone rumble and a Robert Wyatt falsetto. His recorded works start weird, embrace accidents and galumph towards the Captain Beefheart end of the musical spectrum, sometimes coming worryingly close to prog rock.
The sleeves of most of his albums are hideous (an exception is 2015’s The Magic Bridge, where an infinite loop of Hokusai’s wave-froth features on A4 paper). The videos for Peasant’s songs are designed to drive people away, shielding their eyes: check out Weaver (the song itself is tremendous tonight) and Ogre, if you dare.
Persevere, and Dawson rewards you generously, with kitchen-sink realism, a psychedelic take on fable, and an almost pugilistic sense of compassion. Pathology is not everything, but a number of his works involve eyes – Dawson suffers from a degenerative eye condition – and his mighty voice exists in a helix with the breathing disorder of sleep apnea.
It’s only when you see Dawson live that you realise something vital has always been lost in the recording of him. Perhaps it’s the wallop of all the instruments on the stage, or the magic of Dawson’s little avant-garde guitar motifs in the run-up to each song. Somehow, the awkwardness disappears and even a song like Beggar – with its mannered interplay of Dawson’s racked tenor and falsetto, and his guitar arpeggio and Davies’s harp – turns into a flowing stomp.
Time dissolves on Beggar, when a destitute man sings the praises of his dog; an image as dispiritingly familiar now as it was in the dark ages. Naturally, the song is a tragedy, which finds its anguished narrator begging his collie’s forgiveness. “I sold my shoes to buy her a chicken!” is a tear-jerker of a line, ripped in an emo howl from Dawson’s very innards.