The flyer advertising the tour describes Dean Owens as “Celtic Americana from Leith via Nashville”. This first date was in a small venue in Twickenham, best known for rugby, in the suburbs of south-west London. That’s quite a lot of geography to untangle before settling down to the show. Leith is the port in Edinburgh, Scotland, 3,900 miles from Nashville and birthplace of Dean Owens, one of the country’s finest singer-songwriting exports. Last year he released his sixth album, “Into the Sea” to deservedly high praise. Here we bring together this man from Leith and Twangtown because this new record was produced, recorded and mixed in Nashville by Neilson Hubbard. Among the several highly acclaimed local musicians playing on the album are guitarist Will Kimbrough and fellow singer-songwriters Kim Richey and Suzy Bogguss.
I have to confess I sometimes struggle to define “Americana”, preferring instead, “roots”. Dean Owens has a rich seam of American influences; he’s spent a lot of time in the US, recording in Nashville and living in California but he’s not a Scot who has just immersed himself in another culture. He does far more than that by blending the music and heritage of Scotland with the many strands of roots that form “Americana”. Hence “Celtic”, Leith” and Nashville” but let’s rid ourselves of all these labels. This is a man who can write and tell a compelling story, sing and play some great music.
And now to the gig. Given the company Dean keeps in the US and his plaudits in the UK (fellow man of Edinburgh Irvine Welsh is a big fan) it is a real treat to go and see him at such an intimate venue. In my book, that’s the proof of someone who does this purely for the music and for those who come to see him. Thanks should go to Dean’s record label Drumfire Records who also handle his gigs. After an excellent set from Hannah Rose Platt, Dean just walked into the place with his guitar slung over his shoulder, set up his modest gear and got on with it. The troubadour had arrived.
Fittingly, Dean opened with “My Town” the title track from his 2004 album of the same name and first with Kimborough. “This is my town, the one that often brings me down..“ It is a vivid picture of a man looking back to where he grew up, his friends there and how it had fallen on hard times. This is Leith not Edinburgh but advance the clock a further 12 years and you’d struggle to buy a house there now.
What struck me most was the storytelling. All the songs were stories about someone or something with each being fully introduced by Dean. Several came from “Into The Sea”; “Evergreen”, about hard times for friends and family, “Dora”, the result of digging into his family tree when Dean discovered his grandmother, Dora Salvona Owens, had grown up working in the family’s travelling circus. No matter how familiar his US surroundings, “Valentine’s Day in New York” is a reminder it isn’t home. On the other hand, “Up on The Hill” is home! it’s where Dean goes to clear his head and walk his dog.
Dean didn’t work to a set list but took requests, interspersed with his own selections. A favorite and typical example of his knack for telling a good tale is “Man From Leith”, about his father. This is not just a tale, but an absorbing insight into the character and ways of that generation; soldier, boxer, dock worker. Several times I felt myself mulling over these vivid stories about intriguing people long into Dean’s next introduction. Though he excels at communication through his songs, Dean did ask if the audience were keeping up with his accent during the intros. That was an integral part of the evening; Dean wasn’t just singing about other people, he was part of the songs, one of his characters.
No song about Scotland would be complete without rain so up came “Raining in Glasgow”. Dean described his songs as melancholy or just plain miserable. That’s a bit harsh; they are realistic and authentic depictions of life, the songwriter’s raw material. Not everything was self-penned; Johnny Cash was a big influence. In 2012 Dean released an album of Cash covers, “Cashback, songs I learned from Johnny”. Tonight we had two from that record; “Delilah’s Gone” and a song Dean wrote, “The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin’. The Man From Leith and The Man In Black have much in common.
This gig had it all; a small venue with an appreciative audience, thoughtful songs that rewarded careful listening,a range of melodies and all from one thoroughly nice guy and his guitar. Who cares about categories? Who needs a label? What we do need is music and songs that make us think, laugh, tap our feet and remind us that this is life and we’d better grab it now. Thanks Dean.