Johnny Dowd – Valentine’s (Albany, NY)
Johnny Dowd has something to say. “I’m the alternative to alternative country,” he drawls. Lest there remain any confusion, he adds, “I’m Emmylou Harris…if she couldn’t sing and was a man.” While there’s obviously something flippant in his delivery, Dowd does touch on a salient point, for he is one of the few truly enigmatic American visionaries, with a sound all his own and a muse sprung from a seemingly tortured and knotted psyche.
Dowd’s band takes the small, tinsel-decorated stage at Valentine’s and plows into its first number like some shambling, industrial monster mash inspired by equal parts Hank Williams and forgotten surf movies. On the second song, “Worried Mind”, Dowd, dressed in a black T-shirt and looking like a combination of a middle-aged Dennis Hopper and a young Ricky Nelson, croaks, “My eyes were jerkin’ round in my head/The sky was bleeding, the sun was black…/My head cracked, the birds flew in/My sins have come home to roost.” Just as his words begin to worm their way a bit too far into your head, his willowy foil, vocalist Kim Sherwood-Caso, provides some relief in a voice at once sweet and unnervingly remote. Drummer Brian Wilson provides the song’s backbone, a rolling, tribal drumbeat and thrumming bass line that he works out on foot pedals.
As uncanny as the experience is, there’s something wholly genuine and unpretentious about it. Nevertheless, it’s clear you’re in the presence of something remarkable, perhaps like the Velvet Underground in some half-filled Southwestern bar in 1969 (at the end of their rope and blissfully unaware they’re on the brink of apotheosis). Bar patrons move forward, drawn toward the figures onstage, noticing how the odd elements work amazingly well together. Dowd and Justin Asher offer tight, snaking guitar interplay (Latin-tinged on “Worried Mind”, elsewhere country plunking, metal-ish power chords, or devolving into hiss and skronk). Behind them, Wilson is his own three-ring rhythm circus, while Sherwood-Caso stands dead center exuding cool.
Tonight’s songs include new tracks such as “Judgment Day”, which features an ominous, galloping beat and extended guitar freakout, and “Your Mother’s Thighs”, in which Dowd’s desperate lewdness (“Her breasts are still wet from my cryin’ eyes”) is undercut by Sherwood-Caso’s sweetness. “Big Wave”, one of the finest tracks off of this year’s Temporary Shelter, comes off like an Oliver Stone-directed surfing nightmare, while “Butcher’s Son” is searing and vindictive hard rock. A nice surprise toward the end of the evening is a rollicking take on the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”, which underscores the most important quality of Johnny Dowd: No matter how dark and twisted his vision, he’s eminently likable.