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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
HELLWOOD The Mean Fiddler, London, October 18th 2006
Guitar cradled in his arms, the tall, angular and slightly awkward Jim White leans down towards the microphone and announces in his nasal southern burr, “We’re Hellwood, and London, we’re here to blow you away …..err….in a minute …You ready Johnny?” To the left of the stage the small and stocky Johnny Dowd is fidgeting with his guitar, stubbing out a cigarette and winning admiring glances for his Travoltaesque shirt. And were it not for the fact that these two share an obsession with the darker things in life, both of them masters of what might be called alt.country faux-gothic god-soaked gloom, you might wonder what they are doing on the same stage. Orange juice drinking Jim lightens his noir with a wistful humour, a deep sense of love and subtle musical complexity, and he’d rather be at home changing the nappies of his new two month old daughter than trapped in one corner of the Mean Fiddler stage. “If Johnny Dowd didn't exist, Quentin Tarantino would have had to invent him” said London’s Evening Standard. Whisk(e)y drinking roll-up smoking Dowd (“in fact I’d drink just fucking anything you gave me at this moment in time”) gives the impression of being a taut bundle of latent aggression (an impression supported by constant references to the fight he’s supposed to have had in Glasgow the previous night). He’s in a confrontational bluesy punk-rock mood – and in his dark world (“Johnny Dowd – the kingpin of sin”) there’s no room for humour (until, that is, he melts into a huge smile - which to be honest he does at the end of each song).
    Yet these two clearly have a deep rapport and considerable mutual respect (“Did I tell you about my cock?” goes a hypnotic and repetitive refrain to one of Dowd’s songs, “Well yes Johnny, actually you did, quite a lot” intones White by way of reply). So much so that they’ve made an album together, Chainsaw of Life, under the name of Hellwood, with fellow Dowd collaborator Wille B, drummer and bass-pedal player extraordinaire. It’s a characteristically dark affair, almost perhaps too sombre, which to be honest needed this performance to bring it to life.
Tonight the three of them are on stage, along with organist Michael Stark. The Mean Fiddler is pretty full – mostly men, mostly mid-thirties plus and mostly big Dowd or White fans (or both). It’s clearly not a place for neutrals. Once Dowd sorts himself out the band lash into ‘Alien tongue’ and ‘Man in a plaid suit’ – two of the punkier songs from ‘Chainsaw’, both sung by an animated White. Willie B’s drumming is of the Animal school, his organ pedals producing a booming backdrop for Dowd’s staccato guitar – “now that’s what I call rock and roll” mutters Dowd, clearly warming up as he drawls his way through ‘God’s back pocket’ – “I’m a human stain on everything divine … a Romeo of spiritual deviance”, supported by White who’s using a child’s toy to distort his voice. In the course of the evening they play the entire album and by and large the songs get better and stronger as they go on. There are some obvious winners, ‘A man loves his wife’ (“You know a friend of mine heard that song and said Jim, you’ve written a real beauty there, but I had to tell him that my muse Johnny Dowd wrote most of the words”) and the sharply ironic Katrina-inspired ‘Thank you lord’ – another monotone Dowd vocal. But a couple of songs that didn’t seem to perform on the CD are real surprises here – ‘Firework factory’ (with a surprisingly agitated ending from Jim White) and the simply superb slow groove ‘Thomas Dorsey’, which unless I’m mistaken Dowd hijacked with lyrics from his song ‘No woman’s flesh but hers’. The house is truly rocked – especially by ‘Spider in the room’ a really danceable and funny tune written by White. “I’ve got fucking spiders in my head” shouts the swaying drunk next to me in a moment of absolute silence. “Hmm” says Jim, “sounds like you need some of that mental insecticide”. Jim’s right. We move.
“This is one of the moments everyone in the band likes best” says Dowd, as White steps forward to sing ‘God was drunk when he made me”. White later tells a characteristically convoluted story about a theological confrontation with country star Sleepy LaBeef provoked by the song as an introduction to ‘A bar is just a church where they sell beer’, a solo performance that helpfully allows Dowd to recharge a glass or two. It’s during this song that we all notice that the lighting rig on the ceiling is shaking with a frightening degree of fury, Poltergeist style – “Is that you Sleepy?” asks White, “Is that you Lord? Are you angry?” Actually it’s the Kooks – or their gyrating teenage fans - who are playing upstairs in the Pickle Factory, but the dramatic effect is wonderful. A refreshed Dowd returns to introduce, to everyone’s bewilderment, a ZZ Top medley, performed by Willie B and Stark (I think you can find it on the album they’ve just released) before playing a heavy duty version of his own ‘Ding dong’, and while White gets almost all the toys out of his percussion toy box, Dowd manages, as he has done a number of times earlier, to sing, smoke, drink and play guitar at the same time – a truly inspiring accomplishment.

Jim White and Johnny Dowd
And after almost two hours they finish, ‘though Dowd is looking as though he’s in the mood to carry on all night. Instead, along with Willie B and Jim he sets up the merchandise store where they happily chat to their adoring fans – while a few wait patiently as Michael Stark burns them CD’s of the evening’s gig which he’s taken as a live feed from the mixing desk. Now there’s a first. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

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