The bard of Newcastle laments tales of a broken Britain at this stomping CCA gig
Equipped with a mug of chamomile tea, sporting a Guinness-stained jumper, and a motley flat cap, barely containing a mop of long blonde locks, one could be forgiven for thinking the man taking centre stage at the Centre for Contemporary Arts had somehow stumbled into the wrong room. But Richard Dawson’s understated demeanour is perfectly fitted for the music and messages he brings to the stage: the small problems of everyday people as a witty critique on society as a whole.
Despite having releases in his discography dating back to 2007, Dawson truly found his footing within the indie-folk scene off the back of 2017’s fantastic Peasant – an album steeped in the troubles of ordinary medieval-era individuals, both in terms of lyrical content, and archaic instrumentation. This was followed, spiritually if not musically, by 2020 from the October of this year. With 2020, the self-proclaimed bard of Newcastle took the old English narratives of Peasant and modernised them, replacing metaphor with bitingly relatable lyrics, and layered string instruments with heavy noise rock distortions. The irony of coupling such mundane lyrics with raucous guitar and drum backing is not lost on Richard, as he bemoans the stupidity of the "rock concert" before launching into the breath-taking opening number Civil Servant. The droning distorted intro is even heavier live than in the studio, and creates quite a shock to the system following the rather low-key opening. The song is representative of the album it opens, tracking the spiral of doubt and loathing held by a civil servant within the Department for Work and Pensions. This climatic ending is incredible; with crashing drums and guitar blasts, coupled with Dawson’s screeching falsetto, declaring his triumphant intention to… phone in sick to work. It’s a powerful opener, and the unapologetic mundanity of the subject matter only adds to it.
One of 2020’s catchier tracks Two Halves is next, and follows on with the same poetic banality Civil Servant opened with, detailing in impressive depths a losing child’s football game, complete with failed open-goal shots and a shouty Dad bellowing to “stop fannying around … just pass the bloody ball!” It’s a lighter track than some of the heavier cuts that surround it, but that does nothing to take away from its drama, as the child narrator is as theatrical and melodramatic as one could hope for. Heart Emoji takes the opposite approach: telling the story of a lover caught cheating and the partner considering murder in return, all backed by a light-hearted bass and finger-picked guitar backing. Dawson pre-empts the track, telling the audience “if you’re not sure whether this album is for you… this is the track to show you that it’s not.”
The geordie’s interjections and banter are a highlight of the show, with a variety of self-deprecating anecdotes to lighten the mood after some of the darker tracks in the setlist. Peasant-era song The Almsgiver, for example, tells the tale of a mother saving a beggar boy who reminds her of her own – a heart-wrenching narrative told in impressive acapella, Dawson’s deceptively wide vocal range beautifully on display. The Queen’s Head is another of the quieter cuts, detailing a town’s reaction to a catastrophic flood, with a wide array of political and societal commentary. Some of Dawson’s best lyrics appear throughout this track, and the live performance captures them in their rawest essence.
Several tracks from Peasant make an appearance tonight, but where the layered strings cannot be replicated live, Dawson amps the heaviness all the way up. Scientist possibly benefits the most from this style change, as one of the slightly deeper cuts on the album the rejuvenated instrumentation truly gives it new life. Ogre is lessened somewhat by the necessary omission of the haunting backing choir, but the raucous guitaring and drum crashes almost make up for it. The personal highpoint of the night comes from one of the final tracks, 2020 standout single Jogging, with loud bursts of distorted noise masking deeply raw and sentimental lyrics captured gorgeously with Dawson’s emotional falsetto.
The finale of the night comes in the form of Soldier, a fitting ending: equal parts hopeful and saddening. The closing lines of the night “I am tired/And I am afraid/My heart is full of hope”, delivered with trademark emotional potency, perfectly summarise the crux of much of Dawson’s writings. Until Richard unexpectedly returns to the stage to sing an, admittedly gorgeous, acapella rendition of a Northumbrian traditional folk song – in his own words “Bet you regret asking for an encore now”. But no one did, because it is the eccentricities of Dawson and his concerts that add to his organic, lovable charm. Shaking hands with those of us near the front, the bard departs from the stage for good this time, leaving the crowd with the buzzing excitement that only such an emotionally intimate performance can bring about.