By Joseph Costello
Make no mistake about it, Richard Dawson is easily the most acquired taste in British popular music today. Playing in support of his 2017 album Peasant, I can talk of an evening equal in its beauty and strangeness. Ultimately, if Dawson doesn’t freak you out, even just a bit, try harder. If he doesn’t make you fall in love with him in the process, it’s time you gave up altogether.
Making his trip to Durham on a suitably cold and shadowy late winter evening, the North-East born medieval-folk artist ran through his historical content-driven ballads with little aplomb. However, for those in the know, a clownish stage presence is not necessary for a singer with a voice as impressive as his. This included genuinely spine-tingling acapella performances, which left his audience in quiet awe at what is truly a unique talent.
There is something unashamedly absurd about many of the arrangements on Dawson’s songs, which truly dance around at times like shanties written in medieval Britain, performed in courtyards for the entertainment of noblemen.
Yet, within this undeniably oddball framework, it doesn’t take much to hear the exceptional musicianship and lyrical content. Such as on the song ‘Ogre’, which would have found a rightful home on the soundtrack to Mackenzie Crook’s ‘Detectorists’. The choral vocal on the chorus is akin to The Bees, or possibly some of the more right-on stuff that The Coral have released in their time. ‘Ogre’, as is the case with many of the songs, consists of a minimum of four completely unique parts; so, a warning to the curious, you will need your wits about you to keep up with it all.
However, it is on ‘Soldier’ where Dawson’s talent is most starkly obvious. It is as wild and odd as anything else that he does, but there is something so beautiful in its vulnerability. The lyrics “I am tired, I am afraid, my heart is full of dread” really do pull at parts of one’s emotional make-up, something which popular music often ignores. While Dawson hangs his music around some pretty wacky concepts, there are universal truths that allow for a casual listener to appreciate something, and that is the sense of loss and child-like wonderment at new experiences.
Richard Dawson is an artist that is worth affording your time to, because he is doing something different. This is, of course, not a virtue in of itself. But his unique take on pop-structures and lyrical content might just be the antidote to a style of music, in folk, which has become stale and commercialised. As if transported straight from the Old North in the middle-ages, he may be folk’s unlikely saviour.
Photograph: Paul Hudson via Flickr