Robyn G Shiels and Richard Dawson turn folk on its head as Moving On Music's weekend takeover at the Crescent Arts Centre concludes
In terms of giving scarcely-seen, true artists a rare platform in Northern Ireland, the Moving On Music folk tend not to disappoint.
On this, the third and final night of their Beat Root alternative roots music festival in the Crescent Arts Centre, we see two vastly contrasting artists who both, to various extents, fall under the wide-ranging banner of 'folk music'.
It’s a genre that unfortunately, ever since dilution became a possibility, has become an increasing parody of its once-championed authenticity. Fortunately, one of our acts tonight is a master craftsman making the most out of folk while operating within its boundaries, while the other reimagines and reinvigorates the very notion of what folk can be, avoiding its trappings at every turn.
The first of the two-act bill is the familiar presence of Kilrea journeyman Robyn G Shiels, who takes to the stage with regular foil, banjo player James Heaney – as well as select accordion accompaniment.
Opening with one of his lighter numbers, 'Open Road', his restrained-yet-throaty voice silences the crowd instantly for its duration, before letting us know he’s about to cover a song by Rose Tattoo: 'Australian hard rawk band, nineteen eigh’y wan/eigh’y two'.
It’s obvious he relishes this as he throws a knowing glance into a member of the audience; it’s something he does a lot of – and it’s increasingly difficult to separate artist with performer.
Indeed, as far as enigmatic Northern performers go, Shiels is top of the heap, regularly injecting doses of black humour into what could easily be a solemn performance of doom-laden Americana. Even his poignant closer 'Underneath the Night of Stars' is prefaced with a cautionary childhood tale, comical in both its innocence and Portrush reference points.
As he has proven on last year’s NI Music Prize-winning full-length Blood of the Innocents, the strength of his reasonably conventional songs is not just that they’re wonderfully framed within the context of his character, but that they’re infused with a sense of knowing. His 'bout ye’s' and 'yer ma's' are fooling no-one – we can hear the lyrics.
In any case, it’s a testament to his craftsmanship that each of his performances could feature any lineup or instrumental configuration and have something to offer in each iteration, without ever ceasing to sound like Robyn G Shiels.
There are several essays that could be written about what happens after the round-faced, grey haired 33-year-old with the young eyes shifts onstage, charming the diversely populated room with his affability from the onset. Richard Dawson shuffles around, deciding whether to venture toward the mic stand or guitar, with all the sensibilities and rapt attention of a stand-up set from the hugely respected, seldom-seen comedian Daniel Kitson – beard and trucker hat included.
After breaking the ice with a self-deprecating story about an encounter with a fellow man of size – 'People in stone houses shouldn't throw glasses' – he successfully invites the polite audience to join him in a casual dialogue for the entirety of his performance.
For his first act, Dawson moves down to the crowd. With perfect pitch, he subverts the 'passionate mic-less a capella' cliché with a vocal performance reminiscent of Jeff Mangum’s pure, sustained, emotive bellow for a song he wrote in the Bardic tradition. It’s taken from his 2013 album, The Glass Trunk, inspired by his studies about old Newcastle culture and based on items from the Tyne & Wear museums.
Dawson's eye condition makes objects appear less defined and can induce a hallucinatory-like state, to put it simply. To some it would be a hindrance, but Dawson uses it to paint a vivid psychedlia, guiding us through these crystal-clear reveries.
If there were any reference points for Dawson’s kind of concept-melding guitar work, it could be the British folk wistfulness or or exploratory, meanderings of Bert Jansch, but that sells short the thrashed-out quasi-punk aggression and discordance he capably channels through his undersized, pawn shop electro-acoustic.
The oft-cited folk parallels drawn with Captain Beefheart’s deconstruction of the blues ring true, as the tiny fragments of vision in his narratives add up to a more complete, universal whole, where folk is merely the platform for his ideas to take root.
Dawson never lets one idea linger too long; instead, he gives the audience just enough before continuing upwards, never falling into a predictable resolution or resting on what could be perceived as a hook.
A special subset of great artists throughout history have often had an unquantifiable air of knowing – a hint that they’re not quite showing their hand and that they know something we don’t, without ever being too explicit. Dawson, too, manages to possess this quality, despite the detail that characterises his work. 'Poor Old Horse', an interpretation of the 220 year old poem, is a prime example, once more subverting the convential folk ballad.
Be he playing an instrumental, singing solo on the floor or simply conversing, each aspect of Dawson’s set complements each other in a way this writer has never seen before. His genuine passion for the bardic tales is not an act, with the narrative thrust never losing momentum through the peaks and troughs in any of his pieces.
Closing out the night, the title track from latest album Nothing Important is contextualised with the story of the son his parents lost at just seven days old, prior to his own difficult birth. The piece stretches fifteen minutes in length, giving us oneiric-yet-lucid accounts of childhood from varying family members in a peerless performance.
Such is the singularity of his vision, Dawson turns a repeated refrain of 'I am nothing/You are nothing/Nothing important' – casting the band from his ring finger mid-song – into a life-affirming statement that resonates deeply on into the night and doubtless the thoughts of those in the audience.
Richard Dawson has brought us down into the root issues of what folk is about on its most human level. As he returns to the stage, the audience cheer. He humbly apologises and thanks the audience, explaining that a logical endpoint has been reached.
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