On the North York Moors

Johnny Dowd (US) & Melle de Boer (NL)

Fri 2 February 2018 - 19.30

Tonight we're delighted to welcome back the great Johnny Dowd who returns to the venue he was born to play en route for Tilburg (NL) to complete an early hat-trick of Band Room shows. We think of Dowd, a US Army veteran who served in Berlin, as the missing link between Keith Richards, Captain Beefheart and The Handsome Family. Others imagine him no less theatrically. "If Nicolas Cage were playing Nick Cave, he'd sing like Johnny Dowd", said John Aizlewood in The Guardian.
If two people mine the same territory long enough, they’ll eventually meet. Johnny Dowd and cult Dutch singer Melle de Boer have been digging deep into the human soul for a long time. Like Orpheus, they go down into the underworld and surface to make beautiful songs about their discoveries. Now their journeys are coming together in a collaborative performance like no other.

They are touring Europe as a double bill in January and February 2018, playing songs old and new. It won’t be a sleepy singer-songwriter night. It will be electric, chaotic, hard and ugly, soft and beautiful. They’ll combine their individual stories to provide a new, unforgettable, unique performance.

They’ll each do a set of their own songs, then perform a set of unconventionally interpreted traditional songs together. Behind the music will be visuals, drawings, photos. Johnny Dowd will be joined by Mike Edmondson (vocals, guitar), while Melle de Boer will be accompanied by Suzanne Ypma (vocals, drums, synthesizer).

Both Dowd and de Boer are releasing new albums. De Boer comes to terms with his parents’ separation, while Johnny does his inimitable take on old American songs. Both albums are traditional, but not corny. They crackle with electricity.

For background on Dowd, this is the most perceptive review we’ve ever seen of his work – the album in question Temporary Shelter (2000), the reviewer John Aizlewood in The Guardian:

Should you ever find yourself needing to move house within the environs of Ithaca, a quiet New York state town, you might be tempted to call upon the respected services of the Zolar Moving Co ("We stand behind our reputation. Ask your neighbor"), established in 1978. Perhaps you would receive the personal attention of Zolar's craggy, 52-year-old Texan co-owner John Dowd. Perhaps, if you bonded over the sideboards and wardrobes, he might let you into his little secret.

Like many of his generation, Dowd was drafted into the army, albeit to serve in Berlin rather than Vietnam. On discharge, he embraced hedonism, married (and divorced a fortnight later), travelled and slipped into respectability before the gutter took him for ever. In 1997, Johnny Dowd began to make records.

Temporary Shelter, his third album, was mostly recorded in Ithaca. Self-produced and partly engineered by Dave Hinkle, Zolar's other owner, it is based around the notion of memory or, as Dowd expands, "the story of my life as I remember it". It is probably mostly lies and jokes - he's certainly taken the insurance policy of formally noting that his characters are fictitious - but that's hardly the point: as with all the best fiction, it feels true.

Dowd's music is from everywhere yet nowhere. His previous albums, 1998's Wrong Side of Memphis, and Pictures From Life's Other Side a year later, were mistakenly perceived as alt.country, albeit with a Raymond Carver-esque twist. Although Dowd has found his metier with Temporary Shelter, the brooding ingredients were already in place. "Be content with your life," he warned in Wrong Side of Memphis's Thanksgiving Day, "it may not get any better."

Dowd's is the dark, mistrustful side of Americana. Those who inhabit his tumbleweed songs - the abused child as adult in Angel Eyes, the washed-up surfer of Big Wave, the oppressive parents and disturbed children of Sky Above Mud Below - "momma talks to Jesus, I wonder if she ever mentions me" - are not so much cracked caricatures that could be filmed by David Lynch as crushed ordinary folk who have long been beaten by life, whether they know it or not.

Golden Rule is par for the lyrical course. Dowd growls his way through the saga of a borderline bum trying to bed a married woman whose husband "puts his hand between your legs: it makes you sick". He offers to "take you to a motel with a TV and a pool", promises to share his bottle of whisky with her and reminds her that "nothing comes from nothing is my philosophy". Dowd neglects to mention how this grubby tale ends, but not, you'd suspect, happily ever after. Who says chivalry belongs to a more courtly past?

His voice is an extraordinary thing; part croak, occasionally country twang, but always tremulous. Not unreasonably, Tom Waits is the laziest comparison, but Dowd is how Nicolas Cage might sing, if playing Nick Cave. And on the deeply unhappy Planet Happiness, Dowd echoes himself, pre-empting each line of each verse. "I have always followed the religion of mental hygiene," he explains forebodingly, twice. "I won't touch a woman who does not keep herself clean."

If it weren't such a typically accessible but unsettling song, and if the conviction that Dowd is not being autobiographical didn't hold (it only just does), it would be creepy. You can almost feel the mainstream beginning to blush.

As with all secure leaders, Dowd picks and retains superior henchfolk without fear of being usurped. His rumblings are leavened by frequent duettist Kim Sherwood-Caso's crystal clear, detached tones. She sugar-coats Dowd's icebergs and is devastating on her solo vocal showcase, the wintry inverted carol that is Death Comes Knocking, quietly declaring that "when death comes calling you won't hear a sound".

Justin Asher's pounding but sombre keyboards establish a funereal pace across the whole album, while Brian Wilson's drums and his unusually low basslines provide all the backbone Dowd needs.

Musically, there is a ghostly blues sensibility tucked in beneath the Hank Williamsy desolation, as well as a distinctly un-American Weillian seam to both the lengthy opener, Stumble and Fall, and the melodically circular Hideaway. But Dowd's hybrid is his own.

Where he can take this from here - after all, there is a successful removal firm to consider - is anybody's guess, but right now that matters not a jot. What a record.

Johnny Dowd (US) & Melle de Boer (NL) website

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