Able to ‘channel his passion for traditional English music’: Jasper Llewellyn reviews Richard Dawson at Manchester’s Islington Mill

By September 27, 2015

Music. Manchester.

In TSOTA’s first piece from Manchester, Jasper Llewellyn reviews Richard Dawson at Islington Mill.

Ever since a friend of mine described feeling completely overwhelmed by Richard Dawson’s performance at Soup Kitchen in February, I have kept a close eye on the Manchester music listings, looking for any sign of another Dawson live show. Finally, after months of waiting, I heard that Islington Mill was putting on Dawson alongside Georgian folk singer Asiq Nargile in the intimate club space on the ground floor of the Mill. Trusting in the friend’s insistence that Dawson’s music is to be witnessed rather than simply heard, I resisted the urge to search him up on youtube and instead waited for the live performance.

As per usual, the journey to Islington Mill was rushed and poorly timed and we only managed to catch the last fifteen minutes of joint-headliner, Asiq Nargile. Playing what appeared to be a fusion of a banjo, a sitar, and a lute (we later discovered that the instrument was in fact called a ‘saz’), Nargile held the room captive for the two songs that we caught, one of which was entirely instrumental.

Her left hand flew around the fretboard, fingering seemingly endlessly repeating sequences of notes that gradually layered over another, forming a hypnotic drone that reverberated around the room. While the action of her right hand could easily be described as strumming, it was unlike anything that I’d seen before and often seemed to involved dragging her huge plectrum across particular strings on the up-stroke. The result was a sound that my untrained ear found almost jarring but was mesmerising and memorable either way.

Dressed in a tight, grey skirt, formidable high heels and a smart-looking blouse, Nargile moved her body in time with the strums of the saz, throwing back her head at points. Rather than awkwardly shuffling off the stage as seems to be the fashion at the moment, Nargile gave the audience a trained bow before blowing kisses into the crowd.

After a short break, we made our way back into the dimly lit room and managed to secure three seats right at the front of the room. Dawson soon emerged, shuffling onto the stage, guitar in hand and began fiddling with the settings on his amp. He was much like I’d imagined him, and was quite the opposite of co-headliner, Nargile.

Awkwardly moving the microphone stand around the stage, Dawson gave a short, half-mumbled introduction which initially had him pigeon-holed in my mind as a bit of awkward bloke. However, he suddenly hopped down off the lip of the stage and, standing right in front of us, began his set with a beautiful acapella rendition of English folk song ‘The Brisk Lad’, famously performed by Ewan MacColl.

The room held its breath as Dawson lost himself in this story of stealing a ewe, almost screaming at points yet still maintaining a perfectly accurate sense of pitch throughout. The song set a high standard for the set to come but Dawson consistently lived up to it. He managed to put the audience completely at ease whilst simultaneously sweating his way through a selection of traditional and self-written songs.

Playing a three-quarter size guitar, Dawson seemed to almost literally channel the intensity of his passion for traditional English music into how he played the instrument. Extreme dynamic variation and a spattering of highly dissonant instrumental passages perfectly complimented his complete vocal and emotional commitment to the music that he was playing.

While I found myself drifting off during some of the longer songs (two of the songs off his most recent release are over sixteen minutes long), the set was generally highly engaging and truly emotionally provocative. As a fan of traditional music in general, I found Dawson’s original material and his versions of English folk songs to be nostalgic in a way that, far from being antiquated, was entirely relevant and very exciting. We left the Mill feeling dazed, impressed, and excited, and have since returned to the old past-time of checking the Manchester music listings for any mention of the name ‘Richard Dawson’.

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