Johnny Dowd | 12-Bar Club, London

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The Independent Culture

"I sing songs of lust and depravity," Johnny Dowd sings, truly. "That's the only kind of song that comes out of me. I apologise. But I can't stop." Aged 52, with silver, swept-back, high-piled hair and a spare face hardly lined by time, Oklahoman Dowd's first album The Wrong Side of Memphis was released only two years ago, after most people's last chances have been let go. Accordingly, there's an air of gratitude and high stakes to all his performances. Tonight in this intimate folk club, his début without a band is just more of the same.

"I sing songs of lust and depravity," Johnny Dowd sings, truly. "That's the only kind of song that comes out of me. I apologise. But I can't stop." Aged 52, with silver, swept-back, high-piled hair and a spare face hardly lined by time, Oklahoman Dowd's first album The Wrong Side of Memphis was released only two years ago, after most people's last chances have been let go. Accordingly, there's an air of gratitude and high stakes to all his performances. Tonight in this intimate folk club, his début without a band is just more of the same.

"You are no Caruso," he self-deprecatingly quotes an über-serious Austrian interviewer telling him, and it's true that his voice has a fault running through it, dryly shaking on notes, clambering for or missing them. But then, that's how his characters live their lives. The biggest model for tonight's songs is Sinatra's "Only the Lonely", the greatest ever record of white men wrung dry by loss. Add the wounded murderousness of pulp novelist Jim Thompson's small-town losers and blues that offer redemption only on the grave's far side, and Dowd's own unbowed experience, and you have the night's menu in full.

It's Dowd's wry attitude between songs that draws the crowd to him, at first. "I'm blushing, because that sounds... so foolish," he sighs during one story. "What was the point?" So many of his lyrics, too, are humorously hysterical, dryly detailing emotions of ludicrous horror, thatsmiling pleasure is your first response. But Dowd heard rock'n'roll from the start, is familiar with its origins in the 1950s churches in which he was raised. So not all tonight's hell-bound sinning is a special effect.

On "One Way", he considers the suffering of Christ on the Cross, even assuming His identity: "Who plunged the sword into my side? Who decided I must die?" To an inarguable, unrelenting beat from a guitar whose strings he pushes with workman's hands, he squeezes his eyes shut, and sings: "Miracles happen every day." The audience's discomforted uncertainty at such references grows, till, on "From the Cradle to the Grave", when he sings "Jesus!" over and over, passionately, there's a chasm of silence before cheers come in. Dowd claims not to be religious. But he uses its power.

The core of his work, though, stays with male love for women, and the idiocy, abandonment, impotence and sudden death that can convert it to disillusioned hate. "No Woman's Flesh but Hers" turns lingering love for a car-crash corpse into a buried threat, and is followed by the misogynist's lament "God Created Woman", then the gently escalating stalker's manifesto "Hope You Don't Mind". By this time, Dowd has been joined on-stage by other singer-song-writers, male and female, who've played here or nearby tonight, creating a sort of Lust Aid finale. But a man who can write such fine songs only needs one man's help. If Sinatra was still here, he'd sing them.

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