Johnny Dowd - The Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

by Andy Brown Rating: Release Date:
Johnny Dowd - The Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
Johnny Dowd - The Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

If memory serves me right it was sometime around 2007 that I first heard Johnny Dowd. I can’t remember anyone’s birthday but I’m usually reasonably accurate when it comes to music. A friend had copies of the Temporary Shelter and Cemetery Shoes albums. What I heard was a brilliantly strange mix of dark, brooding Americana, absurdist humour and musical ingenuity. Like a cross between Nick Cave, Tom Waits and those early Smog albums.

There was a back-catalogue to get stuck into and a string of brilliant, increasingly experimental new albums to absorb but would I ever get to see the self-confessed ultra-scary troubadour play live? He played Sheffield once but I missed it. Then he popped up in a barn on the North York Moors, miles from anywhere. Tonight though, Johnny Dowd has finally made it to The Brudenell Social Club. Part of the collaborative Going Down the Road Feeling Bad tour with Dutch singer-songwriter Melle De Boer.

The Community Room at the Brudenell seemed unusually sparse but that didn’t seem to matter with the arrival of Catalonia’s Joana Serrat. Bathed in light that made everything look a little like the Roadhouse in Twin Peaks (you’ll know what I mean if you’re a fan), Serrat was captivating from the start. Playing an acoustic and accompanied by her brother on drums Serrat played a set of gentle dream-pop including cuts from last year’s Dripping Springs LP.

Serrat’s songwriting is rooted in Americana but delivered through a hazy, reverb-soaked filter. At the centre sits Serrat’s voice; clear, purposeful and soothing. It isn’t really indicative of the acts to follow but Serrats set is spellbinding nonetheless.

The name Melle De Boer had somehow managed to elude me but that’s all about to change. An imposingly tall figure, De Boer takes to the stage with multi-instrumentalist Suzanne Ypma for a set of raw, twisted and charismatic Americana. Much like Johnny Dowd, De Boer takes his traditional influences and stretches them into new and wonderfully strange shapes. One minute he’s Johnny Cash delivering a murder ballad to some Folsom prison inmates, the next he’s on his knees engulfed by feedback.

Ypma is much more than your standard multi-instrumentalist, jumping up and down and throwing everything she has into tribal percussion, electronics and off-kilter guitar accompaniment. She looks like she’s having the time of her life, laughing when her enthusiasm leads to a couple of broken drum sticks.

De Boer and Ympa completely own the stage and deserve our full attention but not everyone’s playing ball. When De Boer spots a couple happily chatting through his set he mischievously holds out the microphone and invites them to have a go. Then, completely deadpan, he introduces the next song as a song about killing his mother. “I did five years” he says “just so you know”. Don’t mess with Melle De Boer, kids.

Joined on stage by regular collaborators Anna Coogan and Mike Edmondson, Johnny Dowd starts his set with some spoken-word and a wall of noise. Happily taking a sledgehammer to any pre-conceptions you might have had about an artist frequently labelled as Americana. They quickly follow this with the twisted carnival sounds of ‘Empty Purse’ and the ridiculous filthy fun of ‘White Dolemite’. The latter introduced by Dowd yelling, “where are the laaaaddddies?”

You might have come to sit through some solemn ballads but Dowd and his band have come to party. Songs like ‘Whiskey Ate My Brain’ show just how well the trio work together; locking into a groove as Dowd pulls every bit of noise he can out of his guitar. It’s noisy, robotic funk of the highest calibre. The funkalicious ‘Freddie’ is rewritten and introduced as ‘I Ate Leeds for Lunch’ while an unexpected cover of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ seems particularly wonderful when surrounded by songs about whiskey, death and sex. Humour, as always, is important to Dowd.

His latest album, Twinkle Twinkle, finds him tackling some Americana classics and we’re treated to a number of them tonight. As you’d expect, everything is filtered through Dowd’s unique style. Sharing vocal duties with Coogan, the bands versions of ‘St James Infirmary’ and ‘Red River Valley’ breathe new life into these frequently covered compositions. They also play a particularly beautiful rendition of ‘Wayfaring Stranger’.

At one point De Boer and Ypma come back on stage for a big, communal sing along to the likes of ‘Tom Dooley’ and ‘Oh, My Darling Clementine’. Attempts to get the crowd to join in, frustratingly, have varying degrees of success but a particularly dark song about a car wreck on a highway finally gets everyone singing along. Come on Leeds, it’s Johnny Dowd!

It’s been a really great show from top-to-bottom; from Serrat’s dream-pop (Dowd describes them as “the Spanish Carpenters”) through De Boer and Dowd’s dark, unique, take on Americana. If you get a chance to catch this tour while it’s out on the road then I really can’t recommend it enough. After the show I chat to Edmondson at the merch stall and explain, like the rabid fan I am, how long I’ve waited for them to play Leeds. Here’s hoping they come back soon.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars