The new Cabaret venue at Wales Millennium Centre may not have been the ideal relocation for the quiet, more exposed moments of Richard Dawson’s solo set, but the songwriter drew from his Northumberland pub background to handle bar noise, distracting neon lights and hecklers with self-effacing wit and powerful songs.
After an unaccompanied 15th-century folk song, some moving numbers and a bit of solo guitar, he attempts to win over those less loyal audience members (“If a friend or loved one has brought you along and you don’t know what you’re doing here…”) with Two Halves, a song about a kids’ football coach yelling profanities. Sure enough, my own dragged-along loved one whispers, “It has a touch of 10cc, and some Genesis… fortunately not too much.”
It’s a shame not to hear songs like this and Peasant without a band, but he fills out the sound with droning bass strings and intricate fingerpicking, and it’s great to hear some of the newer album The Ruby Cord with its themes of technology and post-apocalypse. Once or twice, though, he veers towards the overindulgence of less humorous folk revival fairies-and-mysterious-landscapes excesses.
Dawson revels in the mundane: his songs shine best when they milk everyday phrases for some wisdom or beauty, often delivered with a shouty drawl. Whether raising money for the British Red Cross, celebrating after a rowdy football game with fish and chips, or weeding polytunnels, Dawson finds hope in the sight of people continuing on in spite of economic struggles, racism, political crises and mental health difficulties. It also makes him, to some extent, a crowdpleaser: end a song with a comically monotonous everyday phrase, or an out-of-context blues bend, and you almost guarantee a chuckled applause.
The balance of dark soul-searching with the comfort of the everyday is best encapsulated in Jogging, for which he finally stands up and unleashes everything he’s got. It’s a display of catharsis that has a few audience members screaming along. Thankfully, Dawson’s voice at full power is enough to finally drown out the bar, the hecklers, the toilet hand-dryers and the singalongers; despite a rapturous standing ovation, he quietly bows out.
Llais: Richard Dawson, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Thurs 12 Oct
words ISABEL THOMAS photos SIMON AYRE