I certainly wasn’t in the mood for a gig that evening. I had been at a conference in Swansea all day, was knackered and had a monstrous hangover to boot. You can imagine the state of mind I was in when I arrived (late) at the Old Queen’s Head in Islington to see Genevieve Dawson’s headline show with alt-folk promoter New Roots. Grumpy and irritable, I immediately set about (unfairly) judging everyone at the show: the crowd must be an insufferable smug of hipsters – reclining in fancy armchairs and sipping burgundy from oversize glasses, the promoter insists on censoring mobile phones and enforcing total silence during the performance, and the room is too fancily furnished to allow any of the free form raucousness that is usually pre-requisite for gig enjoyment. I resigned myself to an evening of tedium.
Oh how my foolish preconceptions were shattered!
Firstly (without listening to her music), I’d unfairly written Dawson off as a ten-a-penny singer-songwriter (a descriptor that I am unreasonably biased against, probably due to the influences of a certain snobbish classical music teacher), stringing together three chords with a passable voice but presenting nothing of real substance. To my surprised delight, she turned out to be extremely musically literate from a theoretical standpoint, with an excellent grasp of phrasing, modern harmony and structure, her band even managing to pull off a complex number in the byzantine time signature of 11/8 without a hitch!
Dawson was ably supported by a watertight group of highly proficient jazz musicians, enabling her to blend her songs’ simple folk roots with spicy infusions of off-kilter improvisation and ambitiously ambiguous harmony. Genevieve’s take is not unlike that of Hejira-era Joni Mitchell, and is a refreshing blast of creativity in an alt-folk genre that can sometimes feel crowded by Bon Iver imitators with overwrought lyrics about prosaic suffering. She’s got the sense to retain most of the more traditional structure of classic songwriting, allowing the listener easy access to the songs, but also the courage to experiment enough to ward off the feeling that you’ve heard it all before.
The band choose a “softly-softly” approach, well suited to the acoustics of the venue, and to Dawson’s voice and finger-style guitar playing. I took strong issue with Genevieve’s denigration of her beautiful nylon string guitar – in a bit of stage banter she joked that a real guitarist wouldn’t be seen dead playing it. In fact, of the two guitars she played during the set, it had the more distinctive and beautiful sound. If anything, the extremely warm tone on her Telecaster during the early songs could have used a little sharpening so as to distinguish it a little more from the upright double bass. Her voice has real power, but she chooses not to exercise it most of the time, preferring a controlled approach that only lets the beast out of its cage in the truly climactic moments reserved for the more energetic closing songs of the set.
The material Genevieve Dawson has released so far showcases her up close and personal old school folk roots, but if her performance at the Old Queen’s Head is anything to go by, the ambition for her songwriting knows no upper bounds, and we should expect some serious pyrotechnics on the album she’s planning to record in August. I’d highly recommend you see her and her new band at any opportunity you get.
Genevieve Dawson’s debut EP ‘Things My Mother Tells Me’ is out now – available on iTunes here.