Sitting here at the Wherehouse getting ready to rock the apocalypse. The bands were fed a nicely varied menu and appropriate quantities of liquid. George’s band goes on first, followed, we think, by Johnny Dowd and Mike “Jim” Edmondson.Lots of beautiful people have wandered in, but where to put the band? Chaos ensues.
Suddenly apocalypse is post, and George Spafford is at the mic.
Then John and Mike hit the stage without a pause, and don’t stop till they get enough…
Thanks to the Wherehouse for the welcoming space, to the friendly crowd, to the Freejays for closing out the night, and to George for his hospitality.
Ithaca NY’s Johnny Dowd has been patrolling the dark, uneasy, unclassified byways and B-roads of the American heartlands for over two decades. A blistering, uncompromising guitar slinger and songwriter, Dowd is set to release his new album ‘Family Picnic’ this month, an ‘americana’ gem that returns to the topics and themes that inspired his legendary debut, ‘Wrong Side Of Memphis‘ and once again underlines Dowd as one of America’s true musical explorers. Americana-UK catches up with him as he prepares to embark on another European tour and asks him about the music that accompanies any such road trip.
So Johnny, how’s life on the road for you and what’s in that glovebox?
There comes a time on every tour when the next drive is too far, your emotional tank is nearly empty, and you can think of nothing but your mortality. At that point, you pull out ZZ Top’s ‘Greatest Hits,’ and you are again ready to conquer the world.
After a gig I want to hear something as far away from the music I played as possible. Sun Ra fits the bill. Any Sun Ra album. It doesn’t matter. He is the tallest giant in a universe of giants.
Today is an easy drive. You feel like you are not a day over 60. In other words, all is groovy. It’s time for Grant Green’s ‘Ain’t it Funky Now.’ Funky and sophisticated.
One of the first albums I bought was James Brown, Live at the Apollo. The very first album I bought was by Percy Faith. I don’t know what that was about. I do love a string section. So many great James Brown albums, but I guess James Brown Live at Paris Olympia 1971 has got to be high on the list. Speaking of high, I don’t know what the band was on, but some of those tempos are ridiculous.
This is another album that’s good after a greasy English breakfast. Incredible playing, uber funky, socially interesting. Of course I’m talking about ‘Headhunters,’ Herbie Hancock. Anything you can do, he can do better.
It’s that boring time after sound check and dinner. You really have nothing left to say to your band mates, let alone strangers. I might go to the van for some alone time and listen to Mary Wells, ‘All the Best.’ This album is like a time machine for me. I can usually only listen to a couple of songs before I start getting too emotional. Then it’s time for a brewski.
Any time is a perfect time to play this record. You could listen to it before your greasy English breakfast, just to get your mind and belly in alignment. ‘Paid in Full,’ Eric B. and Rakim. (Have I mentioned Betty Davis, the woman who put the funk in Miles?) ( Yes, MANY times…. ed.)
Late night. Trying to find the hotel. Lost. Twenty minute drive turns into an hour-and-a-half. No problem. ‘The Very Best of ‘ Johnny Guitar Watson (Rhino Records) will keep you focussed, relaxed, and alert. I just love his guitar playing.
You have a day off. You would prefer to stay in your motel room and watch tv. But your band mates want to drive somewhere to see ancient ruins. What can you do? Dial up some Sonny Sharrock, ‘Ask the Ages.’ This album affects me the way The Dark Side of the Moon affects hippies.
Sometimes, hopefully only once per tour, you are lying in bed in your motel room, it’s 3 AM, and sleep is impossible. You are engulfed in an ocean of loneliness and regret, and there is only one album that really captures that feeling: ‘Only the Lonely,’ Frank Sinatra. But if it’s the last day of the tour, and you are headed to the airport, then the only album to play is his ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers.’ Boundless swinging optimism. So that is touring. Hours of great music in the van. Followed by a gig, motel, breakfast. Repeat.
Zoom in close to a rose bush and all you see is thorns. Although twisted and hidden beauty still exists within the plant. Welcome to the music of Johnny Dowd in all its thorny beauty. For over thirty years Dowd has been taken the unexpected path, an iconoclast with few mates.
Family Picnic, Dowd’s 2019 release, out on Mother Jinx Records finds Johnny tilling the soil of unrequited love, murder, and characters struggling to live a twisted American dream. As Dowd sings album closer Thomas Dorsey, “I sing songs of lust and depravity, that’s the only kind of songs come out of me.” Electronic beats, keyboard flourish, and what Johnny deems “ice-cream chords” drive a record composed of waltzes, shuffles, and boom-chuck rhythms. Dowd shifts between his bent-but-not-broke singing voice and a spoken word approach that succeeds where lesser artist would be chastised for “trying to rap.”
The instrumental “Hoodoo” preps the listener for an unusual experience as electronic beats, carny organ, and electric guitar collide with a xylorimba. Dowd leans on reliable past collaborators on this release including Michael Edmondson (backing vocals, guitar, xylorimba) and Kim Sherwood-Caso (backing vocals), while he covers vocal, guitar, and keyboard duties himself.
“The Man of Your Dreams” follows, “I’m not the man of your dreams, that is obvious to all,” Dowd sings. “If you must go, go slowly,” he duets with Kim Sherwood-Caso. The two voices grate against one another initially, but like sandpaper they smooth and blend together, hypnotizing your ears. Vicksburg dives into a world that, “was live by the sword, die by the gun.”
Dark tales abound on much of the record; the darkness deepens in the loneliness of “Walking the Floor,” “people around me are so computerized, I see the fear in their eyes, I look at them, they look away, it’s just another horrible day”, he continues, “I’m sad and lonely, nervous and depressed, my life without you is a big f*%#ing mess.”
Family Picnic is a survey of characters that would be at home in a Harry Crews or Larry Brown novel. Four Gray Walls dark um-pa-pa like folk polka dirge is almost fun until the lyrical punch lands, “a doctor can fix a damaged heart, replace what’s been broken with artificial parts, but the damage you cause only God can repair, whether I live or die I no longer care.”
Before the record risks becoming too depressing, a goofiness slips into the mix on Conway Twitty. “I wanna make some noise, I don’t want no peace and quiet, I’m here tonight to start a mother f#$*ing riot, I love the bright lights of New York City and I want to be a star like Conway Twitty,” Dowd sings. Let’s Have a Party keeps the party going with 80’s era keyboard driven electronic beats and synthesized tones while Dowd sings, “let’s have a party, just you and me, weekend is here, now I’m free…life is so hard, working class, work week is long, money don’t last.”
While songs about longing, loneliness, missteps, and murder are nothing new to the Americana songbook or Johnny Dowd’s work, Dowd continually reinvents his approach to these topics in a way that finds renewed energy and purpose. http://www.johnnydowd.com
Johnny Dowd has dug up a rocking show from the past. Live at GrassRoots 2006, recorded in Trumansburg, NY in July 2006, catches him in full flight, with Michael Stark (keyboards, organ), Willie B (drums, bass pedals) and Kim Sherwood-Caso (vocals). He played quite a few songs that were unreleased at the time – the scary blues rocker Demons and Goats for instance would turn up on his Wake Up the Snakes album in 2010.
While most artists play it safe on stage and stick close to the studio versions, Dowd and his band love to turn things upside down and inside out. Warts and all is pretty much their modus operandi, but it works like a charm. Uncle Willie comes barreling down the tracks like a runaway train. The Good Die Young, a song that became a highlight on the Hellwood album Chainsaw Of Life is a slowed down lament that hits hard. Miracles Never Happen is dedicated to his mother, who would be surprised that her son is still kicking ass today, a music critics favourite, and a cult artist with a fervent and vocal fan base. Drunk is skewed and lopsided, almost falling apart, with Kim Sherwood-Caso as the one who keeps it together. Performing a song with reckless abandon is what Johnny Dowd does best, but he is smart enough to take a time out after such a demanding oexxcursion and let “his band within a band” Tzar (Willie B and Michael Stark) plus guest vocalist Eva Revesz do their electronic thing with Don’t Drink the Water – that must have confused the hardcore folkies in attendance. Closing the show with God Created Woman, a song that was already part of the shows of his first band Neon Baptist and a stand out track of his Pictures from Life’s Other Side album he bade the audience farewell, after putting on a show that delighted his fans, converted a few and generally confusing and/or irritating the rest.
Live at GrassRoots 2006 is released on Mother Jinx Records and is available thru his website (and the merch table at his shows).
- Poverty House
- Linoleum Floor
- Miracles Never Happen
- King of the Jews
- Uncle willie
- The Good Die Young
- Don’t Drink the Water
- Demons and Goats
- Ding Dong
- God Created Woman
As you can tell from Hans’ review, the band was burning pretty hot, as is usual after coming off tour. We wish we had a tape of this 2006 show:
Speaking of great albums, did you miss this? It was a very good year…
Celebrating cynical existentialism, Dowd brings odd stories to life: a wheelchair-bound veteran who questions the price of loyalty; a cowboy who shoots off his “member” because it’s the root of all his troubles; the suicide of a man whose lipstick-scrawled message on a motel room mirror claims he’s the “King of the Jews” — he lay surrounded by women’s shoes, a Telecaster, and, on the nightstand, an empty notepad.Fort Worth native Dowd grew up in Pauls Valley, Okla., pretending to be James Brown (circa Live at the Apollo) before moving to Memphis, where he picked up his first guitar and discovered Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter. Mix in bits of free jazz and psychedelia, and you get an idea what Cruel Words sounds like.
The songs occasionally — and purposefully — jangle like shards of glass in a cardboard box. Dowd’s creaky, out-of-breath voice isn’t a lot better, but the sum of the album goes far out and almost touches the ragged edge where interesting things can happen to music and listeners.
Dowd wrote a dozen of the 14 songs here and interprets bandmate and drummer Brian Wilson’s “Wilder than the Wind ‘66” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Dowd and his tight outfit turn the otherwise innocuous JBG into a vaguely ominous threat.
Cruel Words is an aural guided tour through a sideways world where nothing is pretty, it just is. The words and music work so well together that listeners can almost see it.
Johnny Dowd: Cruel Words
Ever since Dowd decided at the age of 50 to utilise the offices of the removals company he co-owns in Ithaca, New York, to record his self-released, stripped-down, country-blues-soaked-in-blood debut Wrong side of Memphis, he has rejoiced in portraying the seedy underbelly of contemporary small-town U.S.A. But even though the subject matter may have remained a constant over the years, his music has long ago wandered far from its initial raw blues path to incorporate free-flowing jazz and swamp psychedelia.
Cruel Words, Dowd’s sixth album and second for Bongo Beat Records following 2004’s Cemetery Shoes, is no exception with his penchant for country blues and retro keyboards serving as a foundation from which to build a wonderfully ragged fusion of otherwordly funeral funk (“Ding Dong”), hard rockin’ wig-out (“Cradle of Lies”), scuzzy electric-guitar-fuelled rap (“Anxiety”), and distorted penny-opera jazz (“Unwed Mother”) to accompany his profound spoken-word lyrics. It also comes as no surprise to find that the cowboy-turned-eunuch of the opening number is not the only disenchanted individual to appear in Dowd’s latest batch of excellent musical vignettes. There’s the disillusioned wheelchair-bound vet in the funky anti-war song “Praise God” who questions the sacrifice he made for a country that has no more need for his services. On “Final Encore”, Dowd, sounding like a burnt-out Nick Cave, paints a bleak picture of a suicidal musician’s final moments in a cheap motel.
Elsewhere, Jon Langford (who previously performed with Dowd on the latter’s self-penned song “Judgement Day” for the 2002 anti-death-penalty album The Executioner’s Last Songs) and Sally Timms of the Mekons join Dowd regulars Brian Wilson (former employee of Dowd’s moving company who plays drums and bass pedal), Mike Stark (keyboards), and longstanding back-up vocalist Kim Sherwood-Caso (who was sadly absent on Cemetery Shoes) to provide additional vocals on the country lament “Drunk”.
While you’d hardly expect this cacophony of woes to end on a happy note, Dowd wraps things up thrillingly with his longstanding live-set finale “Johnny B. Goode”, a hell-bound reinterpretation of the Chuck Berry classic. With Sherwood-Caso’s angelic backing vocals shadowed by a snarling, creepy Dowd, pounding keyboards, and distorted electric guitar that threatens to drive the song into freefall only to pull back from the abyss at the last moment, this provides a menacing yet exhilarating end to an enjoyably inventive and deliriously dark album.
JDF would like to contribute a small collection of photos of the 2006 European tour, some by Mike Edmondson, some by Michael Stark and some by a photographer at a show ( if you identify yourself, we’ll identify you!):
Al ruim dertig jaar behoort Johnny Dowd tot de gevestigde orde van de rootsmuziek, van de alternatieve country of dat wat wij tegenwoordig beter kennen als Americana. Maar ondanks de prachtige loftuitingen die er zoal over hem zijn geschreven, heeft Dowd nog nooit een groot publiek voor zijn muziek weten te bereiken. Niet vreemd als je bedenkt dat de eigenzinnige muzikant er werkelijk alles aan doet om maar niet de reeds geplaveide wegen te bewandelen. Geniale maar dikwijls bizarre spitsvondigheden en wereldvreemde avonturen in tekst en muziek maken het de luisteraars nu niet gemakkelijk. Vooral op het vorig jaar verschenen Twinkle, Twinkle leek Dowd behoorlijk de weg kwijt te zijn. Al eerder werden door hem de scherpe randjes en de viezige kantjes van de rootsmuziek opgezocht. Dat de drank en drugs daarbij een rol speelden lijkt waarschijnlijk. De vertroebelde blik maakte zijn muziek en zijn teksten echter echter altijd fascinerend. Om de sfeer te optimaliseren zocht hij regelmatig een inspirerende omgeving op. Zo begon hij ooit met schrijven in het kantoor van zijn verhuisbedrijfje, maar maakte hij later ook eens gebruik van een studio waarvan de muren volledig waren voorzien van overlijdensberichten. Maffe onderwerpen en thema’s als ‘moord’, ‘dood’ en ook de trieste kanten van de liefde werden altijd al graag bezongen door de ooit in Texas geboren, maar tegenwoordig in New York woonachtige muzikant. Wie dacht dat Dowd zijn wilde haren inmiddels wel kwijt zou zijn geraakt in de loop van de tijd, en zo’n vijftien studioalbums later, komt bedrogen uit.
Op het eerder dit jaar verschenen Family Picnic horen we hem namelijk weer op de zijn zo bekende zwartgallige wijze. Na eerst de luisteraar op het verkeerde been te hebben gezet met de vreemde instrumentale opener ‘Hoodoo’, volgt een even zo merkwaardige wals, waarin Johnny stoeit met distortion en andere gruizige tonen die je uit een elektrische gitaar kunt toveren. ”I was never the man of your dreams” klinkt het vals, maar zeer gemeend gezongen. In het donkere ‘Vicksburg’ lijkt het zelfs of Tom Waits tijdens het opnemen de studio is komen binnensluipen. De Amerikaanse Burgeroorlog wordt hier op wel heel bijzondere wijze beschreven. Angstaanjagend is het, zonder enige remming. Het is typerend voor Dowd waarvan je je nauwelijks kunt voorstellen dat hij inmiddels de zeventig jaar is gepasseerd. Met puntig gitaarwerk en elektronische beats rapt hij zich door ‘Shameless’ en begeeft hij zich tijdens ‘Walking The Floor’ in een vreemde duistere wereld. Met vocale hulp van Kim Sherwood-Caso en ondersteund door Michael Edmondson op gitaar en xylorimba, een bijzonder slaginstrument, neemt Dowd de luisteraar mee in normale, alledaagse gebeurtenissen zoals een familie-picknick, maar is niets zoals het lijkt dat het is. Vrijwel alles ontaardt in een surrealistische toestand en lijkt genialiteit en waanzin heel nauw met elkaar verwant. Hartstochtelijk gezongen is de lieve ode aan gospelzanger Thomas Dorsey door Dowd die, hoe tegenstrijdig ook, zich altijd voornamelijk met Duivelse muziek heeft ingelaten. Ondanks de goede bedoelingen klinkt ‘Let’s Have A Party’ weliswaar uitnodigend, maar wij slaan deze uitnodiging liever af en genieten op afstand van de muzikale capriolen van deze bijzondere veteraan op deze zeer interessante Family Picnic.