Richard Dawson opens his short, early-evening show at Rough Trade East with a traditional folk ballad, The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter. A contrary choice, perhaps, for a performance to launch his latest album of new material, Peasant, but the story of a ghostly damsel who tracked down her slayer and “snatched him and catched him and tore him in three, saying that’s for the murder of my baby and me” sets the tone splendidly. Dawson sings it unaccompanied and the audience stands still and silent, breath held.
Dawson is an unlikely but compelling performer. A short, pale, faintly grizzled man, he stands slightly stooped towards the crowd in a patchwork baseball cap, a baggy T-shirt and red trousers, his words enlivened by occasional arm movements and sporadic head-shakes. His between-song patter is riddled with self-deprecation: “This is a horrendous song,” is how he chooses to introduce one track, while another comes with a warning about just how tricky he finds playing the guitar part in public. It is a strange collision – this unassuming figure, bashful and ungainly, heaving up modern folk tales full of stolen horses, fortresses and miscreants with great solemnity and beauty.
Tonight’s show is a solo one before a full-band tour that begins later this month. Dawson encourages the crowd to attend the later, fuller performances, claiming that the songs we hear are “like faxes, photocopies of the original laminates on very cheap paper”. In truth, he loses nothing: to see him alone is to better hear the intricacy and wonder of his lyrics, the strange and delicate angles of his voice. Now eight albums deep, Dawson is able to shift effortlessly between the sublime and the misshapen, often in a single sentence – the phrase “freckled jowls”, for instance, is a standout lyric. This gift extends to his voice, too, which can rise from the gutter to become something that sounds more like Robert Wyatt at his most radiant. On his records, this is striking; live, it is quite remarkable.
The set, only seven songs long, draws on the new album; the single Weaver, a peculiar pop song “about making a blanket and making a baby”, sounds particularly thrilling. There are old favourites, too, such as crowd-pleaser Wooden Bag, which is the epic tale of “a knapsack purchased for 30 francs from a market in Geneva”, and set-closer The Ghost of a Tree, played down among the audience, Dawson’s voice growing hoarse and spare as he sings.
But the night belongs to a new song, Soldier, with its tale of being “clammy with the doubt of love” and the gut-wrenching refrain: “My heart is full of dread / I am tired and I am afraid.” It is everything one could want in a Richard Dawson song: odd, heartbreaking, contorted yet catchy. He introduces it with a nod to the coming general election. “Thursday,” he says, cautiously. “Terrifying, absolutely terrifying … good luck my friends, good luck.”