Dawson, my new favourite. King of the power Ballard. Full of grit and no bull shit, while simultaneously being capable of producing music as sweet and sensitive as Joanna Newsome, without the sickly gloss. A real British champion in the making or rather, quite a well baked champion by the time this article goes to ‘post’. My first experience of the man was in Bradford’s Delius Art and Cultural centre at the first edition of Bradford’s very own annual Thread Festival.
A strange shaped round-headed man stepped onto the stage wielding a bashed up semi acoustic. Awkward mutterings came from out his mouth, followed by powerful bursts of emotion contained within his songs and performance. It’s not often that you can go to an event with no knowledge of who’s playing and have some stranger with an instrument make you have to retrieve your jaw from the floor. In fact, the last time that happened to me was seeing Joanna Newsom at the second Green Man festival back in 2004.
The songs laid down here were inspired by objects, photographs and archived newspaper articles Dawson found in Tyne and Wear museums. John Coburn, the project coordinator at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle approached Dawson to get involved with his on going Half Memory project, which invites artists from all backgrounds to come into the museum and be inspired by what lays in their volts.
Dawson has recruited a long list of collaborators on this project mostly providing backing vocals in a wonderful chorus of discordant harmony. This beautiful chaotic chorus is best demonstrated on the first track A parent’s address to his firstborn son on the day of his birth. One of the most notable collaborators is improv harpist Rhodri Davies. Together they a have created poignant instrumental duets that are interspersed between the vocal only songs. The duets have a genius slacker tone that allows the mind to ponder in wonderment on the strong stories encased in each song.
A feeling of wonder seems to be a theme of the whole project. Tyne and Wear Archives possess over 1.1 million items that are stored on 14k of shelf space. There’s a lot for an artist to grapple with here. Inspired by articles originally printed in old newspapers, Dawson has created songs that come across as timeless traditional ballads. In an interview I conducted with him about the project he informed me:
“ …the musical element of a song seems to come really quick, almost in one burst… and then its just all there, almost as though its comes through from somewhere… …my way of describing it is that it comes fromsomewhere else in the world, like it comes from other parts of the world that are unseeable to us”
One thing that is apparent is the guy sings from his gut. A good example of this and one of the standout songs of the album has to be Poor Old Horse. The lyrics are taken and reworked from lyrics printed in an old newspaper and the haunting melody came from the ether, channelled through Dawson. The original lyrics are credited as ‘Tune – Miss Glenn’. Dawson him self has no idea what that sounds like, if anyone out there knows, please get in contact.
Joe the quilt maker Is inspired from an article about a much-loved local artisan that was senselessly murdered. Its sung in a key just out of Dawson’s reach, quivering and fragile, almost whispered. This is a fitting approach that matches the content of the songs lyrics perfectly.
There are some interesting insights to Dawson’s journey in creating these songs in the liner notes. The Half Memory project is going to struggle finding a local artist that fits so perfectly to its remit, but then Newcastle is a special town full of special people. These tracks reach back into our history and have the power to remain relevant for years to come.
Review by: Harry Wheeler
Apr 16 Newcastle Upon Tyne Star & Shadow Cinema, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK (featuring: Diane Cluck, Ichi, Richard Dawson)
May 01 Cafe OTO, London, UK