The singer raises a cup of tea to his lips: ‘Go the extra mile, with chamomile…that wasn’t very funny was it?!’ Richard Dawson is taking care of his voice – which is just as well, given the melodic acrobatics it will be called upon to deliver tonight, in a genuinely life-affirming 90 odd minutes of music and chat.
The set opens, appropriately enough, with Civil Servant – the first track on 2020, which came out on Weird World/Domino a mere two months ago. Navigating a loveless landscape of business parks and smoking bubbles our narrator has been driven to the brink; they’re a cog in a machine, meting out structural violence to depressed citizens, on a daily basis:
‘I don’t have the heart to explain to another poor soul Why it is their Disability Living Allowance will be stopping shortly’.
Between the drudgery, the nasty colleagues, and the mounting sense of betrayal our titular civil (?) servant finally comes teetering to the edge of a nervous breakdown. Ken Loach feels like an obvious cultural touchstone here; by the time the narrator triumphantly pulls a sickie at the song’s close, the exultant mood is compromised by the dark irony that this is someone who really is mentally ill.
They are not alone. The characters in 2020 are all put under a great deal of pressure, be it psychological, economic, emotional, or in the case of ‘The Queen’s Head’, environmental. Yet in spite of the often dire predicaments and local tragedies that befall his characters, Richard Dawson has a glint in his eye, and his humour, dark as molasses, glistens throughout. Patter aside the first guffaw of the evening comes with the civil servant fantasising about office-based violence: ‘I dream of bashing his skull into a brainy pulp with a Sellotape dispenser’. Later, in Jogging our graphic designer observes: ‘I thought I caught a busker, Sneak an ugly word into Wonderwall as I went by’.
The specificity of these lyrics is remarkable. Where 2017’s ‘Peasant’ was precise (as far as possible) in its Bosch-esque portrayal of pre-medieval Middle England, this is utterly contemporary. The clue is in the title: 2020 is littered with the detritus of modern life: earbuds, Youtube channels, beta blockers, Cash Converters and passcodes. This eye for detail is all grist to the mill; it makes the songs real, giving the pathos and humour of their suffering citizens a genuine emotional depth. The suburban betrayal of Heart Emoji leaves me with tears in my eyes; the audacity of something as facile as a heart emoji being used to break someone’s world in two; heartbreak, horror and humour all vie for my attention simultaneously, like a particularly wry Miranda July story.
In another break between songs, Dawson jokes: ‘What could be more preposterous than a rock band?!” Yet sonically, this whole offering is so well put together. The instrumentation (he’s backed up by bass and drums) gives the set a necessary propulsive-ness, grit and texture, and bonds to the words perfectly. Just as the lyrics are a stramash of competing moods and emotions, musically, there is so much going on here. Dawson’s guitar work is frenzied and mystifying– both ragged and precise, he uses modal and Eastern scales to join the dots between metal, hard rock, folk and pop, and, inconceivably, the whole thing hangs together just fine. People sometimes talk about 2020 being an untidy album, with Dawson cramming in extra sounds and syllables hither and yon, but wherever he wants to go is fine by me – he certainly has the chops to pull it off. If it is untidy, it’s surely down to the sheer ambition of the thing; tonight everything but the kitchen sink comes under the playful spell of these three musicians. Meanwhile the combination of remarkable musical ability and genial humility makes Richard Dawson an immensely likeable presence.
Although this is the 2020 tour, tonight’s show naturally offers more. Our Puck-like bard jokes that Peasant presented a pre-medieval world in which the songs are metaphors for today, and 2020 is set in the modern world, but serves as a metaphor for a pre-medieval world. As is often the case, humour leads the way to a deeper truth. This is a songwriter who is interested in place, and history, as well as language; placing these first person narratives side by side has the effect of re-rooting what can feel like rootless contemporary travails within their historical and geographical contexts. The terrfified deserter on the eve of battle fits more snugly than you might think beside the anxious jogger or our broken civil servant. Sung a capella, The Almsgiver (English Folk Field Recordings Volume 2) provides yet another standout moment, as the grieving, delusional mother joins the evening’s cast of characters.
Suffering spans the ages in these songs, but the possibility of solidarity remains. Despite the doom and tension, the background of despair and creeping racism, the mood in the room is one of joy. It’s often said that the best art re-humanises us, but for me that hints at a certain hidden individualism. The best art, as seen tonight, and at the recent Kate Tempest show in Leith, returns us to the promise of ourselves not just as individuals, but as members of a wider, shared community; we are not alone; we have power; we exist together, in dialogue with our environment and the living history that is written through it. Dawson barely alludes to the on-going toxic shitshow of the current general election (it’s everywhere and it’s too depressing) but he doesn’t need to; the album artwork for 2020 is a red X in a box. Tonight’s set is a magnanimous, meta-dramatic example of the political power of music to heal, to bring people together, to rebuild community from the ground up. ‘Lots of love’ he says, and toddles off. Breath-taking stuff.