Americana Highways reviews Family Picnic

 

Johnny Dowd’s “Family Picnic”

August 28, 2019 H. R. Gertner

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

 – Original Article

New CD release and the 2006 Tour that inspired it

 

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).

Tracks:

  1. Poverty House
  2. Linoleum Floor
  3. Miracles Never Happen
  4. King of the Jews
  5. Uncle willie
  6. The Good Die Young
  7. Drunk
  8. Don’t Drink the Water
  9. Demons and Goats
  10. Ding Dong
  11. 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:

The Sun 2006 review

Speaking of great albums, did you miss this? It was a very good year…

 Johnny Dowd

By Listen Up June 14, 2006
One of 2006’s most intriguing discs so far is Johnny Dowd’s Cruel Words, a combination of poetic lyrics and funky rhythms, with synths, organ, bass, and guitar. Even with the music, the performances — half spoken, half sung — owe more to the theater than to traditional singer-with-band-onstage shows.

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.

 – Original Article

 

Johnny Dowd: Cruel Words

Alan Brown   
“Mystery, oh mystery / Cowboy’s life is strange / Gets very existential when his brains are rearranged”, drawls Johnny Dowd to the accompaniment of vibrant ’60s retro organ and bombastic drums on the darkly comic opener “House of Pain”, about a philanderer who decides to take a gun to “that thing between his legs”. For the uninitiated listener, this opening gambit amounts to a baptism by fire into the nightmarish domain inhabited by Dowd and the array of desperate, murderous, and marginalized characters he has chronicled in song over the last eight years.

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.

 – Original Article

 

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!):

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

Live @ The Greystones (Family Picnic review by Soundblab)

TICKETS

 

 

 by Kevin Orton Rating:10

 

There’s never been a more apt description of Johnny Dowd’s mission statement than the title of his 2016 album, Execute American Folklore. Ever since his glorious wrong turn on Wrong Side Of Memphis, he’s been taking a chainsaw to the stuff. Last year’s brilliantly iconoclastic, Twinkle, Twinkle was no exception. His latest, Family Picnic is a homecoming of sorts. To Wrong Sideterritory. But if this is the sound of Dowd looking back, you’re in for quite a carnival ride.

The self-described, ominous instrumental ‘Hoodoo’ ushers you in, then we’re face to face with ‘The Man Of Your Dreams’. And ladies, he’s anything but. Then we’re given a guided tour of ‘Vicksburg’. One listen and it’s clear Dowd’s not only singing about the Civil War but the state of the union over the past 160 years or so. “It was war politicians and war profiteers, it was young men dying while the old men cheered,” Dowd drawls. What’s more, I can’t think of a more apt summation of today’s polarized political battlefield.

‘Shameless’ tackles aging with lethal doses of black humor. Some lines literally had me falling out of my seat. And that goes for much on this long player. Dowd’s wit may be dark and dustbowl dry, but there’s always a punchline right in the eye when you’re not looking.

‘Walking The Floor’ tackles obsession, revealing it’s little more than a self-imposed prison sentence. One’s cellmate, the funhouse mirrors of delusional thinking. Here Dowd rips the Stetson off Country Music cliché, revealing the nightmare underneath and never quite disclosing where the bones are hidden.

On ‘Stuttering Wind’ Dowd summons elegiac images of the dearly departed, crows and snow. Kim Caso Sherwood singing the haunting refrain, “All fear the stuttering wind.” “Miserable man knows the meaning of remorse, he wears it on the saddle of his bug-eyed horse”, Dowd grouses. Hard to say what this song is about other than mortality flying its freak flag in the face of everything.

‘Family Picnic’ introduces you to the clan, skewering family values in the process. “Little sister makes a salad and big sister waits for a call, Brother John’s in the bathroom, lord he’s climbing the walls”. The chorus asking the immortal question, “How much emptiness can you swallow? Would a six-pack get you through?” With its demented guitar and cast of legless, diabetic relatives, Tom Waits’ ‘Cemetery Polka’ can’t help but come to mind. If there’s any moral, “such is the cruelty of life”.

The gorgeous, ‘Dream On’ paints a humbling picture of remorse. “You called me a dreamer, but I’m all dreamed out. I’m just a whisper, I don’t know what I was shouting about.” Then chanteuse Kim Sherwood kicks in to duet with “bitch eyed baby, bitch eyed girl, all around my world.” It’s the closest we’re going to get to a love song.

‘Four Grey Walls’ tips its hat to the Jim Reeves classic. Dowd painting said walls blacker than an undertaker’s coat with bon mots like, “Sackcloth and ashes is what you should wear, the dream of love has become a nightmare”. As bleak as all this sounds, it’s Dowd’s sense of humor that keeps things from tipping into despair. If anything, Dowd stares despair straight in the face and then cracks a smile at it. As if to say, if you can’t laugh at this crazy ass shit, you’re going to just lose your marbles.

‘Conway Twitty’ is a demented tale of ambition in our shallow fame hound culture. Dowd’s guitar sounding like a warped trumpet doing a raspberry. And if its murder ballads you’re after, look no further than the black comedy of, ‘Little Jimmy’. “He was not evil, he was just a fuck up. Officially, I knew he had run out of luck.” Which may be putting it mildly. In any event, Jimmy’s wife slits his throat because she’s sick of taking his bullshit. Dowd musing, “Was he the master of himself or the slave”?

Without a doubt, ‘Back End of Spring’ is the most unclassifiable track on the album. Whatever it is, it’s haunting as hell. And what’s more, it rocks. Family Picnic ends with a countryfied tip of the hat to gospel legend, Thomas Dorsey. Dowd lamenting that in comparison to Dorsey, “I sing songs of lust and depravity, that’s the only kinda songs come out of me.” As his warped guitar fades out, you hear Dowd and Sherwood duet, “I wish that Satan would let me go.”  If this is the devil’s music, I’ll take it over Amy Grant or Stryper any day of the week. Here’s to ol’ Scratch hanging onto Johnny’s coattails for as long as he can.

 – Original Article

 

Twinkle Twinkle Pere Ubu

important announcement?—my record of public domain tunes is now recorded[for the second time-the first version was awful]—it will be called [i think] TWINKLE TWINKLE–it’s pretty wack in a folky kind of way—look for me at the grammies—hang down yer head tom dooley yo

– Johnny Dowd

UPCOMING TOUR

Big news: I have some dates in November opening for one of my all-time favorite bands, Pere Ubu!

November 8: Club Cafe; Pittsburgh, PA
November 9: Hill Country DC; Washington, DC
November 21: Woodward Theater; Cincinnati, OH

Ticket links on my Tours page here.

Also, my new record, “Twinkle, Twinkle,” is being mixed and will be released in December. I’m heading to Europe in January.

See you down the road.

Johnny Dowd

Johnny Dowd: new album “Twinkle, Twinkle”

Johnny Dowd has finished recording an album with public domain tunes. It might be called Twinkle, Twinkle and will be released on his own label Mother Jinx Records:

Howdy all. I have finished tracking my new record, tentatively titled Twinkle, Twinkle. All the songs are in the public domain — “Tom Dooley,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Red River Valley,” “Rock of Ages” . . . you get the picture. It features Anna Coogan and Mike Edmondson on vocals. If you ever wondered what folk music would sound like in an electronic setting, this is it. I’ll release it on my own label, Mother Jinx Records. Not sure when. I’ll keep you posted.

 

HCTF review of Execute American Folklore.

 – Original Article

 

 

 

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