Shortly after 8.30pm, a passing punter in the 100 Club said to another fellow gig goer, “I thought that was Billy Idol for a moment.” It’s actually a reference to the gravity defying pompadour sitting atop Dale Watson’s head. On conclusion of his set about two hours later the participants of this exchange might have concluded that any similarity between the two crooners began and ended at their hair – and might also have wondered whether Billy Idol was capable of delivering a performance of two hours’ duration, with a set list chosen largely by his audience.
Dale Watson, native of Austin Texas and last of a dying breed of country singers keeping it real in the Honky Tonkin’ tradition, is over in Europe for a short tour. Bounding onto the stage, he launches straight into ‘Whiskey Or God,’ without a moment’s hesitation. What’s immediately apparent is that the 300 odd shows in an average year he plays has honed him into the consummate professional, Dale drinking Lone Star beer in one hand, while the audience are eating out of the other.
His almost entirely unscripted set is peppered with newer material like ‘Run Away’ and ‘Big Frank,’ but such songs fit seamlessly alongside older favourites such as ‘A Real Country Song (Mr DJ),’ ‘Truck Stop in La Grange,’ ‘Flowers in Your Hair’ – with its catchy “what I love most about you/is that you love me like you do” chorus line – and inevitably, ‘I Lie When I Drink.’ There are regular breaks for Dale to do his Lone Star drinking jingles. At one point he talks humorously about getting a thumb augmentation to allow him to hold ten bottles simultaneously, while to a Welsh audience interjector who barks out a song request Watson says, “I love an instigator – I’ve been one all my life.” Most audience shout outs for songs are entertained without demure.
Dale and his Fender are more than ably assisted throughout by his three piece band – Don Pawlak on pedal steel, Mike Bernal on drums and Chris Crepps on upright bass, providing all the twang you could ask for – and for a time this basement bar in Oxford Street feels something akin to that august Austin institution, the Continental Club.
There’s a nice interlude where Dale is joined mid-set with tonight’s support act, Celine Lee, for ‘The Wild Side of Life’ and a song they co-wrote together, ‘Like Johnny Missed June’. Further highlights include ‘Yellow Mama,’ the nickname given to Alabama’s electric chair and his response to Blake Shelton, ‘Old Fart (A Song For Blake),’ a passionate defence by Dale of the country-roots tradition. His championing of real country music, what he refers to as “Ameripolitan,” is reinforced by ‘Jonesin’ for Jones’ – his eulogy to his own musical idol (not Billy): “to me he was country music and I felt like country music died when he died.” It leaves his audience with the lasting impression that while he has breath in his lungs that the spirit of real country music is sure to endure – and that Dale Watson’s commitment to outlive the likes of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks is absolute.
It’s a measure of his personal integrity too, given the tragedies he’s suffered, that when I expressed some concern to him afterwards about how I’d accurately manage to summarise tonight’s event, that Dale Watson said, “But did you enjoy the show? That’s all that really matters.” His commitment to providing a night of joyous entertainment is as total as his determination to keep the righteous tradition of Honky Tonkin’ country music alive.