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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan


The Borderline, London
May 30th 2010

If you’re thinking of moving house and are lucky enough to live near Ithaca in upstate New York, then you should look no further than the Zolar Moving Company, jointly owned by guitarist, singer and bandleader Johnny Dowd, and his sometime musical collaborator, engineer and producer, David Hinkle. They’ve been running the business for over thirty-five years, removals apparently a convenient sideline for musicians: "music was more important than work, so we could schedule gigs and then do moving jobs around it. We used to do out-of-town jobs, like to Rhinecliff, then also play a gig there that night." 

Johnny Dowd

The company has also been an important haven of employment for many of the area’s other musicians.  They have never advertised a great deal, preferring to build a reputation through word-of-mouth recommendations and customer endorsements like this, from Shirley S:  "On August 30, 2007, three of your movers moved my household belongings to Ithaca. I was extremely impressed with their ability, thoroughness, care, professionalism and speed. They were amazing! I congratulate and commend them for their hard work. I will not hesitate to recommend your company to others. You are the greatest."

But despite the satisfaction it gave to some, house-moving clearly wasn’t quite enough for Mr Dowd, who at the advanced age of forty-nine (yes, there’s hope for us all) released his first record, The Wrong Side of Memphis, which set his unique territory from first song ‘Murder’ (“There’s been a murder here today, See the blood stains on the wall, There’s a body in the bedroom, And another one in the hall”) to the last, ‘Welcome Jesus’ (“Welcome Jesus to this dismal swamp”). 

He carries a number of descriptions, ‘alt-country’ and ‘gothic’ to name but a couple, but neither seem to do justice to his bleak and darkly absurd cameos of modern life, tinged with a keen sense of humour and irony. Indeed the best I have read recently is from a BBC review of his new album ‘Wake up the Snakes’, where he is described as having “a voice like a booze-addled death row inmate, a mind like an existential pulp novelist” (I have to say that “creepy as fuck” was another one that I liked).  He is on a short European tour to promote the new disc, something he normally does around May of each year (time off from the hose moving business, I guess), his visits to London normally clashing with the Islay Whisky Festival.  This year, dates are in our favour, so it’s dinner in Soho’s still vibrant Chinatown followed by Mr Dowd at the Borderline, uncomfortably close to the massive hole in the ground that used to be the Astoria.

Jphnny Dowd

Did I mention the band?  Apart from Mr Dowd’s voice, with a long Texan drawl and a gravel-laden finish, and his guitar playing (something of a revelation I thought), which is almost as sharp as his suit (a gift from London tailor and fan Simon Green) and the smile that’s rarely absent from his lips, one of the most remarkable things about his music are the musicians who support him.  The band is red-hot, as they demonstrate very early on with  “the Johnny Dowd national anthem”, the MGs’ composition ‘Green Onions’ (“that’s the best song that was ever written”), but they simply get better all night.  At its heart there is multi-instrumentalist and long-time Dowd collaborator Willie B, on an unusual but highly effective baritone guitar which really sets its stamp on the whole band’s sound, and Ithacan Michael Stark, whose hugely powerful keyboards add both drive and atmosphere, even if he does occasionally sound as if he’s playing for another band.  Together these two make up Tzar (“influences Z Z Top and Thelonius Monk”), and they try out one of their songs during the evening, giving Mr Dowd a chance to replenish his glass of Jameson’s (as you can see, nobody's perfect). Matt Saccucci Morano drums on this, as he does throughout the evening, as if his life depended on it. The fourth member is Kim Sherwood-Caso, who, if you don’t know, runs a hair-dressing salon in Ithaca, where she “specializes in nervous, detail-oriented, meticulous clients”.  In Dowd’s presence she has a very special role, her crisp and delicate voice acting sometimes as a chorus, sometimes a conscience to his lyrical protagonists.  On other occasions she  sings the truth that they very often don’t want to hear.  She is a beauty to Dowd’s beast, and the combination is as ethereal as it is irresistible.

Johnny Dowd 3

Like several whiskies we could all think of, Dowd is a ‘love it or hate it’ artist. Thus it‘s no surprise that the Borderline is full of fans, crying out for songs from his extensive back catalogue; one of the most called-for being, I was glad to hear, ‘ Thomas Dorsey’, which he performed with Willie B and Jim White in their Hellwood collaboration.  But the cries are unheeded in a set which mostly focuses on the excellent new record, and which gives Dowd ample opportunity to shoot from the hip with some fantastic old-school rhythm and blues guitar on songs like ‘Yolanda’ (a classic Dowd murder-ballad), ‘Howling Wolf Blues’ (lyrics written by Texas bluesman ‘Funny Papa’ Smith), at the coda of the satanic ‘Demons and goats’, and Voices (“I wish the voices in my head would shut up”), and even some samba improvisations on ‘Hello to happiness’.  With his band in full tilt, Dowd is simply one of the most engaging performers you could want to see, with a wonderfully laid-back charm that no doubt derives in part from the rather accidental development of his career.  Or perhaps it was the house-moving?  Either way it’s a five-star, ninety-eight points gig. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

Listen: Johnny Dowd's myspace page

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