Johnny Dowd – Tonic (New York City, NY)
It’s a Sunday night Halloween in New York. The ritual candles are blown out, our black cats are left home to their own devices, most of the costumed weirdos on the Lower East Side have been parading their babies or nursing their hangovers publicly, and my wife and I are saddled up to connect with a damnably suitable darkside mechanism.
Problem is that we seem to be the only ones who appreciate seeing someone as twisted as Johnny Dowd on this particular occasion. Those gathered at Tonic, including a striking bevy of the New Downtown’s young beauties, have arrived in the evening’s apparel to plaud on the opening act, who regales us with a set of uncompromising banality. I can only figure he is working a joke we are not in on, a local favorite of a locality whose rock we have no need of lifting. My companion is fighting an impetus toward immediate violence involving broken glass, and I am individually imagining members of that bevy tied up in my imaginary basement. We are ready.
I remember an old interview with Patti Smith where she referred to her band’s rock ‘n’ roll competence as really being at something like 40%, making this ratio relevant by saying that the Stones were around 60%. I have to admit that after hearing Dowd’s Pictures From Life’s Other Side, I was expecting him and his band to be working that cool 40%. After all, Dowd bravadoes through his pleasantries of sexual purgatory in that unrepentant Okie accent that couldn’t hit the note if it were trussed by four friends and held up for him to punch. But this band had been on an intensive tour for a couple of weeks, and they hit like a well-greased flame-thrower.
The greatest surprise was Dowd’s own guitar playing; he attacked his Strat with barbaric accuracy, an oxymoron in the hands of most. He then rendered a truly disturbing subtlety to number such as “Vietnam” like Chet Atkins after smoking a good joint. Not too shabby for a cat who taught himself the thing far less than a decade ago.
That’s for starters. The whole accursed band pushed the Dowd circus bus through swamp marsh up to the next dry land, where Mike Edmonson set up his calliope for the freak-show presentation. The emotional midgets took turns on each others’ shoulders to look through the plastic tent window at the comatose woman, while Kim Sherwood-Caso stood there in her Viking helmet playing her ingenue of the trailer park ball contraindication to Dowd’s worried-minded misogynist.
The best part is that they can make every song swing with the creepy parts intact. But Dowd, of course, is not scary a person. At worst onstage he is like a serial killer wannabe with a hitchhiker in his pickup, who, when reaching for the lead pipe under his seat, finds only a crumpled pack of smokes and embarrassedly offers the last Winston through gritted teeth to his ride, hating her until he drops her off.
Mostly, he comes off as a smart man who has been bounced around for a few decades and is now standing on both feet onstage to tell those in the world who have had hands on the ball just what the effects of all that bouncing have had on the inside of his skull.