Musicians playing in bars is a time-honoured tradition. From the lyre-players that graced Roman wine joints to the kid who plugs in his bought-for-Christmas DJ deck at the Red Lion every Friday, bar gigs are an essential part of the music world. But no music suits a watering hole better than a lick of bluesified country, world-weary and slow-soaked in discount bourbon. And, as he proved at the newly-refurbished Borderline on 23rd of March, no one can play the dive-bar blues quite like Jarrod Dickenson.
Hailing all the way from Texas, Dickenson dredged quite a crowd of loyalists from amongst the London Town folksters. After support from JP Ruggieri, Dickenson’s own velvet-voiced guitarist with fingers like waltzing spiders, Dickenson kicked off the proceedings with street-corner shuffle ‘Faint of Heart’, opening track from his latest release ‘Ready The Horses’. The new album embraces a more soul-tinged sound than his previous works, and is lathered in gospel choirs, Hammond organs and brass on record. Naturally he couldn’t bring all that embellishment on tour, but Dickenson has crafted a fair reinvention. The duel guitars of Dickenson and Ruggieri did the heavy lifting in place of the horns, and the choirs were replaced by Dickenson and wife Claire’s interknit vocals. As second track and soulful slow-dance ‘Take It From Me’ showed, a few honed harmonies can be just as rousing as a churchful.
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Tracks from the new album made up the guts and glory of the set. ‘The Meantime’, ‘California’ and husband-wife duet ‘Your Heart Belongs To Me’ each earned a prominent place, and its fair share of crowd-members swaying like a well-contented tide. But a fair share of classics reared their heads too. Fan favourite ‘Rosalie’ featured early in the set, as did the countrified ‘No Work For A Working Man’. Doing his best Otis Redding on the newer tracks, these acoustic old hands showed Dickenson at his most oaky and intimate. He swung between the two the whole set through.
Not much of a one for rockstar posturing, Dickenson’s stage antics were constrained to easing to and from the microphone like a willow in the southern breeze, and the occasional howdy-do nod of his head. This could have worn tiresome on another artist, but when one’s six feet tall with a mighty fine Stetson and a Ulysses S. Grant beard, one can hold an eye on looks alone.
The highlight of the show, without a doubt, was latest single ‘Gold Rush’. A sleazy chain-gang clinker with echoes of Tom Waits’ ‘Mule Variations’, it burst between its country-folk brethren like the Galveston Tornado and showed Dickenson’s understated flair for theatrics. Similarly, earnest tribute to Guy Clark ‘Dublin Blues’ hit all the emotional high-points. It’s the mark of a seasoned performer that can make a cover sound like their own, and Dickenson did so with all the ease of hanging his hat.
In the home straight Dickenson returned to familiar pastures. A well-placed rendition of Dire Straits’ ‘Walk Of Life’ dished out the dancing bug, and carried it right over into swinging hoedown special ‘Way Past Midnight’. Dickenson rounded it all off with the shifty blues-breaking skulker ‘Little Black Dress’ under the glare of stripbar-scarlett spotlights. Dive bar music if ever there was any.
Jarrod Dickenson knows his business. His band are as slick as well-greased pistons, and can shrug the weight of songs written for far larger ensembles. Dickenson’s a professional, and delivers on every note. But he’s never lost the aura of the lonesome traveller with a suitcase full of stories. With a Dickenson gig, you get the romanticism of the penniless troubadour and the punch of a House of Blues soul band. Woodie Guthrie fronts the Blues Brothers Band, with an occasional whimsical digress into the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance. In short, when you catch Jarrod Dickenson at the watering hole, you get to have your bourbon and drink it.