Dean Owens & The Southerners, Leith Dockers Club, 13th March 2020

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As Dean Owens & The Southerners thrashed into a fiery rendition of Last Song at the close of his set on what was a particularly memorable occasion, little did we know that it was to be one of the last songs everyone gathered here was to hear in a live setting for some time. Yes, this was a pre Corona lockdown show, just slipping under the wire before The Dockers club and every other venue in the land put up the shutters. That it was Friday the 13th was unnoticed at the time.  The gig was supposed to be the opening slot of a UK tour supporting the release of Owens’ retrospective compilation of his best songs, The Man From Leith, but that rapidly unravelled leaving this night as the sole date on the tour. As they say however, every cloud has a silver lining and at least Owens can take some comfort from the fact that this special night occurred. And it was a special night for several reasons.

This was Owens in his home territory, surrounded by family and friends. The eponymous man from Leith is Owens’ father, once a Leith docker and a long time member of the Leith Dockers Club which was established in 1946, one of the many social clubs established to afford a communal social space with affordable drinks for the industrial working masses. These days the only dockers here are long retired but the club is a vibrant community hub providing affordable entertainment although it, along with similar clubs, doesn’t often feature gigs by the likes of Owens. However, as Owens explained, it was on the very stage he was on tonight that he first performed in public (“Maybe a wedding, or a funeral, I can’t remember”) and so the stage was set for a triumphant return.

The audience was an odd mixture. There were Owens fans, keen to hear the songs and get their hands on the new LP at this official launch gig. They were outnumbered slightly by the usual denizens of the club, stalwarts all, more accustomed to having a dance and some bingo in the interval while there was also a large contingent of Owens’ family, there to see one of their own. To their credit, Owens and the Southerners satisfied all (aside from the bingo players) with glorious en masse dancing as the show ended.

IMG_1986 copyFamily featured heavily in the set list. The Man From Leith was of course delivered as was Owens’ song for his mother (with Owens fondly recalling her couthy sayings), a song for his daughter, the rarely performed Baby Fireworks, and his tribute to his late sister on Julie’s Moon.  The last was particularly poignant as many in the audience had known Julie and Owens, accompanied by Amy Geddes on fiddle, performed the song bravely. Reaching further back, Owens celebrated his history with a rousing Dora, accompanied by a terribly funny tale of researching the family tree.

IMG_2015 copyThe Southerners, Jim Maving on guitars and Tom Collison on keyboards and bass, looked into the maw of The Dockers and survived. In fact, they seemed to thrive on the whole set up with lots of pictures on social media of them imbibing the cheap drink and embracing the regulars after the show ended. Augmented by Amy Geddes for the night, The Southerners played their hearts out with Maving waxing tremendously on slide guitar and having some great fun when he pulled out his mandolin for their delivery of Buffalo Blood’s Reservations. Added to the mix for this night, Geddes’ fiddle gave an extra dimension to The Southerners’ sound and was a fine vocal foil to Owens on Strangers Again.

The crowd lapped up songs such as The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin and Up On The Hill and by the time Last Song rolled along there was dancing, led by an intrepid lady who was cajoling all in the front seats to join in. The band returned for an encore which kicked off with a song Owens had just written for the dockers and their love of dancing. The band didn’t know the song but they vamped along bravely as the dancers poured from their seats. There was brief respite as Raining In Glasgow reigned over the audience before Owens bowed to the crowd and sang one of their favourites, Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline ! Now, that’s probably an experience which will probably never be repeated and which added to the uniqueness of the night and it did what it was supposed to do as the dance floor filled and everyone joined in on the chorus. It was somewhat surreal but it cemented the band’s link to the audience and for this reviewer it was a moment to remember before the shutters came down. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before we can all dance and sing along together again.

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Apologies to Dean and all for the wait for this review, stuff happens. See you all on the other side.

 

Redwood Mountain. The Glad Cafe, Glasgow. Thursday 28th September 2017

20170928_201733 copy“It’s misery at The Glad Cafe,” quipped Dean Owens, as he described the contents of Run Boy Run, a song about slavery. It’s one of the songs Owens has revitalised from a book, The Penguin Book Of American Folk Songs, edited by Alan Lomax, which was given to him as a gift some time back. To accommodate his reimagining of the songs Owens has teamed up with Scots fiddler, Amy Geddes, the pair forming Redwood Mountain, a perfect vehicle for these songs from the past with Geddes’ fiddle the perfect transatlantic bridge connecting the Celtic roots of many of the numbers with the high lonesome sounds of the Appalachians and the plains.

Owens, a successful singer and songwriter in his own right, comfortably inhabits songs such as Katy Cruel and Rye Whiskey as he’s long had a strong American element in his songs, Celtic Americana he calls it. On the album they have recorded, and live tonight, he displays his affinity with his chilling delivery of On The Range Of The Buffalo. The song, which tells of the mass slaughter of the buffalo in 19th Century America, a ploy to starve the Native Americans, allowed Owens to lower his voice to a grim level before swelling in the cowboy yodel of a chorus while Geddes provided a mournful counterfoil to Owens’ vocals. Their rendition of East Virginia was another showstopper; another dark ballad, it summoned up ghosts of the past with a chilling intensity.

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It wasn’t all doom and gloom however as the pair joked back and forth between songs and even delivered a few upbeat numbers such as the stirring Railroad Man and Rye Whiskey while Delia’s Gone, perhaps the most familiar song of the night, was a delight with Owens delivering a very funny tale regarding the song. The audience sang along with Get Along Home, Cindy and Darlin’, a nonsense love song, not on the album but great fun indeed. Interspersed with the old folk songs were some Owens originals. Reservation Blues, another song inspired by the plight of Native Americans, tied in with the theme of the night while Strangers Again harked back to his first solo album. Geddes meanwhile offered up the wonderful instrumental, Amang The Braes O Gallowa before the pair delivered a beautiful version of Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song). Take It Easy, the one Owens original on the album and inspired by Woody Guthrie, ended the show on an upbeat note with the optimistic lyrics dispelling much of the gloom beforehand. Riding on the applause they then played on with a final song, This Land is Your Land, the audience joining in. A fine close to an excellent night.

Redwood Mountain

Redwood Mountain. Redwood Mountain

redwood-mountain-side-1-alt-desat-40-250x250Aside from his burgeoning career as a transatlantic bridge, linking Nashville to Leith Scots musician Dean Owens has delivered several projects over the past few years which have been more low key than his official solo albums. He’s recorded (and played live) tributes to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams with the albums available via his website and at gigs. Redwood Mountain follows this tradition but here Owens isn’t restricted to one artist, instead offering up his version of the great American songbook, not the one written by Gershwin et al but the songs that were first sung and handed on before they were written down. Songs that crossed the ocean with settlers and grew into the New World landscape, played on porches and at barn dances before they were eventually transcribed and then etched into shellac.

The catalyst for the recording was the gift to Owens of a book, Alan Lomax’s The Book Of American Folk Songs. First published in 1968 the book was a collection of 111 folk songs, ballads, sea shanties, work songs, cowboy songs and spirituals with Lomax adding chord charts and explaining the history and provenance of the songs. Intrigued by this wealth of traditional songs Owens set about rearranging some of them and in keeping with the sometime stark delivery of the earliest recorded versions decided to record them in a stripped down fashion. Thus was born Redwood Mountain, a duo of Owens and fiddle player Amy Geddes (with occasional double bass and piano from Kevin McGuire), the pair delving into the backwoods. Geddes of course is the fiddle player in Owens’ band The Whisky Hearts but here she’s riding point with Owens, her fiddle playing not only the second voice on the album but an essential connection to the Celtic roots of much of these Appalachian and high plains songs. This is evident on her rendition of the traditional Scots tune Amang The Braes O Gallowa, one of two numbers here not taken from the Lomax book but acutely delivered with an aching pull and which would not sound out of place on Nick Cave’s soundtrack for The Proposition.

They open with the devastating Katy Cruel, a song with strong Scottish roots and perhaps best known these days for Karen Dalton’s haunted version. Owens and Geddes are just stunning here, their delivery sending a chill up the spine and they capture this spectral aspect again on Fair Thee Well O Honey (also known sometimes as Dink’s song) with Geddes’ fiddle wraithlike at times. Owens’ lone voice on East Virginia (with Geddes adding an intermittent resonant fiddle) is another dark tale but that’s as murky as it gets as the remainder of the album, while still at times dwelling on misery, is somewhat more upbeat. Thus we get the waltz like Get Along Home Cindy and the slave runaway song Run Boys Run which finds Owens in fine voice and Geddes’ fiddle flying like Scarlet Rivera on Desire. Cowboys get a look in on the narrative of On The Range Of The Buffalo with Owens lowering into Cash territory with his vocals and there’s space for a railroad song (Railroad Man which roams into Woody Guthrie and big Bill Broonzy territory) while Rye Whiskey could be sung as easily in a Scots tavern as a hobo camp back in the thirties. Owens winds up the album with his own song, Take It Easy, But Take It which again is reminiscent of Guthrie as Owens adds some modern  commentary as he sings, “The homeless should always have shelter, the hungry should always have food, the sick should be helped to get better and the misunderstood understood.”

Dylan was scrabbling around the Lomax collections on his albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong while more recently Ags Connolly offered his selection of Cowboy songs and Redwood Mountain continue in this tradition. But the album that most comes to mind when listening to this is Billy Bragg and Joe Henry’s Shine A Light, another collection of Americana folklore and I’d certainly recommend to anyone who enjoyed that disc to give a listen to Redwood Mountain.

You can buy Redwood mountain here