Dawn Landes + Jonah Tolchin, The Grace, London, 7th December 2019

Live review from guest writer Mark Underwood.

While Dawn Landes may not be a familiar household name, she is an artist who may have unwittingly seeped into the subconscious of many people seeing as her songs have regularly featured in TV shows such as The Good Wife, Bored to Death, Skins, House, Gossip Girl and United States of Tara.

Welcome to the Courtyard theatre”, Landes dryly announces at the start of her show given that the concert had been relocated to the Grace, the latter appearing to be a purpose built venue adjacent to its more recognisable neighbourhood venue, the Garage, in Highbury – the new location a somewhat sparse and soulless place. It’s a fittingly stripped down performance, Landes accompanied for most of the show with nothing other than an acoustic guitar and a foot tambourine. A no frills show then, although she cuts a charismatic figure in a blue denim dress with a floral motif, her red lipstick matching the colour of her ankle boots.

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The first two songs in her set are drawn from her 2014 album, ‘Bluebird’, including the eponymously titled song which represents freedom and is built around some great Mississippi John Hurt blues chords. A song which immediately took flight in the small confines of the venue, with Dawn’s crystal clear vocals a highlight throughout, it also proved she’s an adept finger picker on the guitar. The ‘Bluebird’ album itself gained some renown as a break up album. Not a break up album in the Bob Dylan mould you understand – and neither was it particularly blue – but something of a more reflective and thoughtful venture, both adjectives that could as easily be applied to the second song of her set, ‘Try To Make A Fire Burn Again.

If Dawn Landes ventured back in time for her opening numbers much of the rest of her set came from her latest record, ‘Meet Me At The River’, an album she recorded with the veteran – and now sadly deceased – producer, Fred Foster. An emerging theme in Landes’ writing is the notion of movement and travelling, no benefit exemplified than in the song ‘Keep On Moving’ a song ostensibly about “People who go on very long walks”, it’s actually a salute to activists like Peace Pilgrim, Mildred Norman, who criss-crossed the country, walking 25,000 miles between 1953 and 1981. It’s a toe tapping, upbeat number that celebrates people voicing their beliefs and taking to the streets for various causes.

She delves further into her back catalogue for the song, ‘Bodyguard’, with its repeated chorus line, an autobiographical tale about how the master recordings for her second album were stolen from her apartment. If the earlier numbers from ‘Bluebird’ are about navigating the breakup of a relationship, then its follow up tonight, ‘Bloodhound’, is about how it feels to be alone.

‘What Will I Do?’ from ‘Meet Me At The River’ is clearly a song in which she takes great pride, seeing as it was the first number to gain the Fred Foster seal of approval, the song preceded by Landes’ charming story about how he declared her a writer on the basis of this tune alone – while he was listening to her performances on his couch with his eyes closed in his Tennessee home. It’s followed by the first of several covers, Dolly Parton’s ‘Longer Than Always’, perhaps an apt choice for someone who entered herself in a competition in Sevierville, Tennessee that honours Parton’s songwriting talent (Landes came second). Equally charming is her a capella rendition of the song she wrote for her two year old daughter, ‘I’m Your Mama’ accompanied by hand claps, footstomping and knee slaps.

Most of the best songs from ‘Meet Me At the River’ all feature tonight including the wryly humorous ‘Why They Name Whiskey After Men’ which compares the opposite sex to alcohol because they can both taste good but leave a lot of pain afterwards – before she returns to the theme of movement with the instantly catchy ‘Traveling’ on which she’s joined by Jonah Tolchin –  a song which meditates on the pleasure of a road trip taken, not for the sake of the final destination, but for the simple joy of being somewhere new.

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In a demonstration of her versatility, Landes takes time to explain how she’d been working on a musical for the last 5 years based on the true story of her fellow Louisville native, Tori Murden McClure, and her quest to become the first woman to row a boat, the American Pearl, across the Atlantic Ocean from America to France. In the song ‘Amelia’ a bird lands on Tori’s boat and she hallucinates that the bird is Amelia Earhart – “Sometimes a woman’s place is first in flight.

We’re then asked if we’re interested in hearing a Jimmy Driftwood song, before Landes launches into ‘What Is the Color of the Soul of a Man?’ – a song written in 1963 but with issues of racial equality and justice still unresolved in America, just as relevant today.

Landes finishes with a Hank Williams cover, ‘Lost Highway’, before sending her fully satisfied audience home with an encore of ‘Silent Night’ the Christmassy mood heighted by her asking for the lights to be turned down as low as possible.

Earlier on, fellow Yep Roc recording artist, Jonathan Tolchin, entertained the audience with his witty and observant modern updating of the blues despite the airline KLM somehow managing to lose his guitar before the show. Fortunately, both he and Landes found a replacement and a small mishap did nothing to undermine what was a highly enjoyable performance.

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