The Gallery Cafe in Bethnal Green provided the quaintest, cosiest, homeliest of performances from David Dondero on Saturday night. With a cluster of people gathered around half a dozen candle-lit tables it was perhaps even for Dondero himself, so used as he is to playing bars and small grimy venues, something of a quintessentially English change; this little rustic cafe complete with terrace, fairy lights and the odd few punters drinking coffee. Very civilised.
Introducing himself as a singer from Yugoslavia, the artist, infact hailing from Minnesota was named in a list of Greatest Living Songwriters by NPR’s All Songs Considered but perhaps shunned any notion of being listed amongst the likes of Dylan and Cohen in opening his set with a Willie Nelson cover.
In part the attentive set up of the venue; tables and chairs and an intimate vibe, made it impossible not to listen to the urgent messages Dondero sputtered forth, but nonetheless, his voice is one to be heard regardless of the environment in which it finds itself. It has all the passion and vigour of a twenty-something and his anti-folk, protest songs bring to mind the younger, though more well-known Jeffrey Lewis in their frank wordiness that at one and the same time protects and exhibits his emotions.
Standouts were classics such as “Rothko Chapel”, “When the Heart Breaks Deep” and a surprise performance of old song “Pre-Invasion Jitters”, requested by Dondero’s friend – he rarely makes setlists it turns out, so after six or so songs he hands it to us to decide what he is to play. The latter track although perhaps in need of a song title amendment – “Post-Invasion Jitters” Dondero suggests, still brings to light issues unchanged; yet every bit as relevant today: “I got those pre-invasion jitters/Ain’t no traitor, ain’t no quitter/You could never stop the terror/By adding fuel to its fire”, “I still feel most of this is true”, he remarked.
Dondero is easily earmarked as a standout songwriter who can turn his hand to comic tunes like “Not Everybody Loves Your Doggy Like You Do” or the intricately finger-picked “The Waiter” which provides a sardonic soundtrack to the story he plays out so descriptively as he employs his guitar to make animated sounds to match the actions he depicts – namely those of a tussle between bartender and attackers , whom he fends off with a bottle opener! True story.
While his songs may all be juxtaposing themes of tenderness and politics, true local tales and comic observations; despite performing alone, and gifted with words rather than vocals, he remains a captivating performer who flits comfortably between the topics he covers, though his voice offers little degree of change.
Probably the only disappointment was to find that so few people have heard of this artist – and while the fair few attentively listening were witness to a stellar set from a performer of an almost cult status within a small circle – the gaggle outside on the terrace severely missed out on something special just feet front them – their loss.
Buy CD: Zero With a Bullet
Download Album: # Zero With a Bullet – David Dondero