Gig review: Johnny Dowd, The Payroll Union @ Greystones

Sitting in the Backroom of The Greystones, the words of a wiser man than I – Kurt Vonnegut – come to mind.

“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD WAS MUSIC.”

The congregation of Americana has had much to ponder recently in what has been a time of reflection and soul-searching.

The previous week saw the 40th anniversary of the tragic passing of one of the genre’s prophets, Gram Parsons. Too young even to gain entry to the unenviable 27 Club, Parsons was a whirlwind, a trust-fund beneficiary who overcame the suspicions of an industry to pioneer his beloved ‘Cosmic American Music’, recording genre-defining records before that ill-fated night at The Joshua Tree Inn.

The gig tonight is a local memorial, dedicated to Andy ‘Chicken Legs’ Weaver who recently lost his battle with cancer. The room is filled with many who knew Andy – I myself did not– including Johnny Dowd, tonight’s main event, who invited Chicken Legs Weaver to record in his own studio in New York State. Eulogies speak of a man whose roots ran deep in Sheffield, whose dark and sliding style of blues bewitched and enthralled the likes of Thurston Moore and Richard Hawley, of a man who would have hated the potentially curdling effects of sentimental tributes on a gig. Respectful of Andy’s wishes, the music takes centre stage.

For many of us, this evening is a question of faith. Is Americana’s broad church built on the rocks, or on the sand? Does it remain loyal to the spirit of its founders, or has it strayed from the path in the worship of false stadium-playing multi-platinum-selling idols?

Support comes from a band at whose hand my own conversion – at this very place at Tramlines 2011 – was won. That night The Payroll Union, their clothes unashamedly declaring their passion for all things nineteenth-century American, baptised me with the good word. In all frank honesty, it was a Road to Damascus moment for me. For years I had longed to hear a home-grown band throw together the soulfully dark rock and blues music that filled my teens and twenties, doubting I would ever experience it, and yet here it was. Raw, at times brutal, it was an epiphany. To that long list of ‘never forgets’ that night I added the song ‘Chappaquiddick’.

Two years on there are no Derby hats on display, brown suits have become optional, and guitarist Tom has no visible facial hair to speak of. These are symptoms of the band’s growing maturity; there is no need to preach to the converted – they, and we, know who they are. But preach they do, in a Gothic Americana tongue. A spectre-white spotlight bleaches the skin of singer Pete David’s bearded face. A lost El Greco apostle in a southern pulpit, Pete is possessed by the energy and emotion of his subjects. At one moment he howls for the very pity of it, the next he duckwalks without control, almost trampling over one of his band-mates. Ben, Tom and Paul whip up this fervour, accelerating towards frenzied crescendos. At times they catch Pete in their current, at others they drag him in the undertow –at times Pete heralds the music like a big-wave surfer, at others he fights frantically to keep his head above it.

From their first song, ‘The Anxious Seat’, through older material ‘Jake the Pistol’ and ‘Abigail’, to ‘Men of Rank’ and ‘Mary Lamson’, the band tell tales from the frontier of a nation in its infancy. We hear stories of human fear and tragedy from the perspective of revivalist, assassin, witch, victim of Masonic conspiracy, and grieving widower. The Payroll Union also play a song from their Philadelphia project, ‘Paris of America’. If this breath-taking song is anything to go by then we are in for a treat of epic proportions when this body of work is unleashed. Oh, and the word ‘ruffian’ is about to make a big, big comeback.

The crowd has noticeably swollen as Johnny Dowd emerges. Johnny takes a bit of explaining. A sinewy, silver-haired sexagenarian, he breezes into view in a shimmering metallic suit. There’s something of Michael Mann’s Heat about him (probably the goatee), but equally of Jack Lemmon’s desperate character from Glengarry Glen Ross; a down-on-his-luck night-hawk, the stain of his fingerprints still decorates a drained shot-glass in a nearby dive bar.

But looks can deceive. When he sings, there’s tangible danger. The voice is a drawling version of R. Lee Ermey’s Gunny Sergeant Hartman, it detonates with a visceral power that shatters your internal harmony, and reverberates in your head like a ricocheting bullet. His guitar is his rifle, a weapon to assault your senses with a range of volleys. Echoing classic blues turns quickly into harsh slashing rock, as Dowd launches into riffs more familiar to fans of Metallica, Queens of the Stone Age and Shellac. He’s the musical equivalent of a shotgun preacher with the armoury of a military junta. Johnny has been sent on mission to expand the sound of Americana.

He’s joined on drums and bass pedals by Willie B – who I suspect of being the love child of jazz comedian Julian Barrett and actor Steve Zahn – and on keyboard by Mike Stark, an intense presence on stage matched with a bright and engaging manner behind the merch table. It is Stark who gives the band a sonic lounge-act sound and a distinct Twin Peaks feel, whilst Willie B’s drumming is tighter than a gastric band and verges on the concussive. Dowd’s brethren are shock and awe.

If The Payroll Union is Gothic, then Dowd is the epitome of Gonzo Americana, recounting modern underclass subculture tales wherein the characters are inextricably fused with Dowd himself. It’s been said plenty of times before, but he inhabits that space previously occupied by John Fante, Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson. In ‘Betty’, Johnny performs terrorism-by-telephone on his aged high-school sweetheart, seeking the retrieval of his precious leather football jacket. He introduces us to low-life anti-hero Gargon, the subject of his latest album, with rasping and strutting numbers ‘Shaquille’, ‘Dance the Gargon’ and ‘Nancy Sinatra’ – though it is in the slower tempo reflection of ‘Girl in a Suitcase’ that we sense the real darkness of a character whose actions are touched by fallen angels. Dowd sings of the world that the middle-classes shelter their children from, and he does it with joyous, deviant abandon.

Towards the end of his set, Johnny Dowd shares with the audience his views on recording – the process being the death of a song – and his concerns for the continued survival of music’s natural home, the gig. He muses that our grandchildren will no longer experience live music, but instead will have a “hologram Johnny from 1976” beamed into their homes for sterile consumption. For someone so unorthodox in his musical practice, observance of this particular rule of performance – eye-to-eye connection with the audience in an unrepeatable moment – is sacrosanct. Amen, brother.

After a generous encore, Johnny Dowd leaves the stage to shake hands with his audience. Pete David, who encouraged me to come and experience this Texan trailblazer, is sitting nearby with drummer Ben Fuller. It dawns on me that, like early Celtic monks, Johnny Dowd and The Payroll Union choose to walk amongst us – their audience – because our response to their music is as important as the creative experience itself; our appreciation, our hopes and our fears inspire them. The musician, the music, the audience: a holy trinity. These artists are working to keep Americana current, creative, grounded in and speaking of the lives of ordinary people –past and present. The genre is in safe hands, and we are right to cling to our faith.

Vonnegut, by the way, was a proud and committed humanist. But had he been with us tonight, and heard this music – derived from his “specific remedy for the worldwide epidemic of depression [that] is a gift called the blues”–well, I think he might have cast his eyes to the heavens and wondered.

Words: Brother Gorillaman

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