Acoustic Beefheart x Medieval Fascination + Freak Folk = Richard Dawson
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
that, if I then had waked after long sleep, will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming, the clouds methought would open, and show riches ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
These are the words of Caliban in Act III, Scene II of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. The quote translates well to perfectly depict the effect of traditional English folk music. It also encapsulates a romanticised vision of old English folklore, of the work of Cecil Sharp, of Morris Dancers, and of Merrie Olde England’s heritage.
Richard Dawson is neither a traditionalist, nor trying to portray a previous envisioning of folk music’s glory days. Dawson, for the best part of a decade, has defied convention in a musical sense. Unlike Caliban, who is virtually forced into servitude by Prospero, he stands taller than his contemporaries, without rules, without strict conform to the nature of his art.
The English county of Tyne and Wear is home to some of the country’s most scenic countryside spots. In the very heart of it (and of neighbouring County Durham), mythology seems prevalent to the outsider. A mythical place where trolls, monsters, and shape shifters are part of the antiquarian’s rich local tapestry; the old folk tale of the Lambton Worm alone is testament to this. This strange atmosphere is the breeding ground for Dawson’s unnatural compositions.
His latest album, Peasant, deals with an almost medieval perspective of characters. Each song a character in his concept, it’s a hard sell to anyone, but it still remains his most accessible and deepest work to date.
His playing isn’t too distant from John Renbourn or Bert Jansch (of Pentangle fame), but Dawson also draws comparison to playing styles outside of the folk realm. Hints of Derek Bailey’s improvisation, Odetta’s bombastic blues, and Henry Makobi’s panache blend into his bellicose guitar style, which deepen his palette and make it harder to pinpoint or pigeonhole. From improvised jazz, to blues, to Kenyan folk… His wide influence is reflected entirely and not at all in his music.
I’m not trying to describe Dawson as the cambion of the 21st Century British Folk Revival, but he’s certainly not creating music that’s necessarily entirely human. If one man could summon Sycorax in modern England today, it’s this man.