Richard Dawson review – dispatches from the breadline

Moth Club, London
The Newcastle singer-songwriter takes an east London crowd on a tender but challenging tour of broken Britain

The scalloped ceiling in the back room of this erstwhile working men’s club is pebble-dashed with gold glitter. Behind Richard Dawson, pink with sweat, shimmers a backdrop of gold foil lamé. His new drummer and a bassist in a trucker cap look like they have wandered in from two different bands.

Such incongruous details would not feel out of place in the lyrics of a Richard Dawson song. The 38-year-old singer-songwriter might deliver the information in a quavery Newcastle falsetto – alluding, elliptically, to the gentrification of Hackney, to the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (the Moths), the ex-servicemen who once drank here, while praising the amazing value of the craft beer on tap. Dawson’s emotions would cast no obvious shadow until, suddenly, his guitar-playing might turn ugly and he might yell the words “Ironic! Gold! Glitter!” as the drums beat mercilessly along.

Everyday incongruities, especially those that speak volumes, form the basis of Dawson’s latest, 2020, his sixth solo album. Released last month, it found him spinning tales of modern Britain from skeins of detail. His are uneasy songs for uneasy times, and 2020 has been likened to a Ken Loach film, voicing horror at the sort of thing we now regard as routine – exploitative working conditions, the dismantling of the welfare state, flooding – but from the perspective of ordinary people just bumbling along. The ground unexpectedly opens up underneath them as they discover a heart emoji on a text, or find their neighbours cleaning their mud-logged pub garden.

On Civil Servant, tonight’s first song, a despairing benefits assessor is forced to deny help to the public he believed he was serving. (Dawson, who has a degenerative eye condition, fell foul of the change from disability living allowance to personal independence payments and had to lodge appeal after appeal to get them reinstated.) The civil servant fantasises about braining a nasty colleague with the nearest blunt instrument – a Sellotape dispenser. “The swipe of the fob, the fob, the fob,” is just one more dehumanising aspect of coming in to do “this dirty work”.

Heart Emoji contains detail so tactile it is hard not to physically recoil from it. Mostly in falsetto, Dawson tells the tale of someone who finds an incriminating text on his partner’s phone at 3am. “All my fears confirmed with a heart emoji,” he trills, almost beautifully. Our cuckold makes his way to the kitchen for a carving knife – you can hear the guitar mimicking the tip-toeing barefoot through the flat. But the act of violence is derailed. “To my horror,” sings Dawson, “there’s a slug squashed between my toes.” That horror is easily shared – who hasn’t had slime trails in their kitchen? – but stands in for the greater atrocity of what might have been.

Naturally, Dawson’s entire set begins with a pummelling math-rock intro, a tactic designed, you suspect, to sort out the musically lily-livered from those who will follow him over the top.

Richard Dawson at the Moth Club.
Richard Dawson at the Moth Club. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

If you might imagine Guy Garvey of Elbow to be the Beyoncé of compassionate northern witness-bearing, then Dawson is the Solange: tricksier, more oblique. Although Dawson is notionally a kind of folk singer, his DNA spans the gap between Faith No More, a fussy metal band, and Field Music, another difficult outfit from the north-east whose jarring time signatures declare their disdain for grooves and easy harmonies.

Allegedly, 2020 is Dawson’s most accessible album, with amped-up choruses and less out-and-out skronk. But it still requires a kind of recalibration, a girding of the ears, even in perfectly adventurous listeners. Tonight’s cosy gig, part of a small tour, is no exception; a more expansive tour follows in 2020, with a “Richard Dawson and Friends” event at London’s Barbican.

A line in one of the set’s most outgoing numbers, Two Halves, quotes a father shouting advice from the touchline at a juniors football match. “Stop fannying around,” the dad yells, “keep it nice and simple, you’re not Lionel Messi, just pass the bloody ball.” It’s easy to feel some kinship with that dad, when Dawson’s songs fidget and fuss and don’t flow. “You’re fine to use those non-pentatonic scales, son,” you want to heckle, “just make a melodic commitment and stick to it!” Dawson, of course, knows full well what he’s doing: subverting ease. At the end, he’ll cover Eternal Flame by the Bangles, just to be perverse.

Watch the video for The Almsgiver by Richard Dawson.

“This is the bit where we’ll lose all the momentum we’ve generated,” he smiles, taking off his guitar and launching into a folk a cappella. The Almsgiver is an old Dawson track from 2017, originally composed for This Liberty, a sound installation made with artist Matt Stokes commemorating Hexham Old Gaol. Earlier this year, Dawson revived it for inclusion on volume two of Stick in the Wheel’s English Folk Field Recordings.

“I more and more feel I don’t write songs, they make themselves known to me,” Dawson comments, noting how much he likes this particular narrator, who is overjoyed to hear that a boy has left the grim prison, 500 years ago.

The song is crammed full of “greylag wings etched into a saucer”, tallow soap and pickled herring. The ground opens up under the listener at the end. “I know that if my boy were in trouble, and I were far away, I’d wish there was somebody there to help him,” Dawson intones, like a stray member of the Waterson clan, and you can feel the taps behind your eyes straining to open.

Perhaps Dawson’s instrumental strangeness sat more easily on his last album, Peasant, set in the Dark Ages, a time so little known that the hairy otherness of his music felt apt. “You’ll know by now that Peasant was a thinly veiled metaphor for the present day,” twinkles Dawson, introducing Hob, a killer song from that album. “This one’s about the NHS, or hobgoblins.”

Conversely, tonight, the songs from Peasant actually feel like greatest hits, by dint of familiarity. Scientist, a raga that turns into a headbanger’s ball, full-on throughout, finds all of Dawson’s instincts pulling in the same direction for once.

For all the ordinary micro-tragedies that befall his characters, Dawson is a dab hand at disarming the listener too. The Queen’s Head, the 2020 track that tells of the Humber bursting its banks, provides the night’s most resonant takeaway. Bash, go the drums. “How little we are, come hell or high water,” yells Dawson. “How little we are in the mouth of the world.”


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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