Originally launched at the Celtic Connections music festival in Glasgow back in February, Dean Owens’ new album, ‘Southern Wind’ has been described as “blowing up a storm” ever since. Unlike the launch night at Celtic Connections where Owens was backed by the Whisky Hearts, tonight’s performance at the Betsey Trotwood in London’s Clerkenwell is a more sedate and intimate affair, Dean more than ably accompanied by Jim Maving on guitar.
It’s a great setting for a such an intimate gig such as this: a classic Victorian pub named after a Dickens character in ‘David Copperfield’ – with Owens’ own storytelling prowess, both as between song raconteur and with the material on display tonight, proving worthy of such a literary named venue. Running through most of the album in no particular order, there’s no denying the special quality of the songs on display here: heartfelt ballads such as ‘No Way Around It’ followed by the atmospheric title track, ‘Southern Wind’ and the bluesy ‘Bad News’ about a woman trapped in an abusive relationship – incidentally appropriate perhaps performed in a pub itself named after someone ill-used and abandoned by a worthless husband in earlier life.
Although Owens is more than happy to joke at his own expense about the misery which inhabits so much of his material, tonight is an almost entirely joyous sounding affair. His humorous storytelling is allied to upbeat sounding songs such as ‘Anything Helps’ which entirely belies its subject matter – the lyrics to the tune inspired by a homeless guy on his uppers spied by the side of a highway: “Anything helps/When you have nothing.”
Apologising in advance for the absence of trumpet accompaniment on the song, ‘Louisville Lip,’ Dean’s plangent tribute to Cassius Clay written on the night he was in Amarillo and heard that Muhammad Ali had died, his whistling has to make up for the absence of any brass instrumentation tonight.
The back story to the song was about how the young Dean’s affection for Ali was in part down to his desire to own a similar pair of white silk boxing shorts with black stripes himself, and his father’s rejoinder that he’d only acquiesce if Dean was prepared to get in the ring himself – proved the spur for Owens’ own flirtation with pugilism at the Leith Victoria AAC Boxing Club. It’s a beautifully downbeat song, name checking the fight with George Foreman in which Ali pulled off the famous rope-a-dope trick. Like much of Owens’ material, it’s an opportunity in which to frame a personal relationship – this time that with his father – the song proving the Scottish songwriting equivalent of Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch.’ Even were this tune interpreted just as a straightforward eulogy for the personal impact Ali had on Owens, there’s no doubt it would still merit top billing alongside Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ as the best song ever written about boxing.
Not to be outdone by her husband, Owens’ mother features in the eponymously titled next song, a tune somewhat long in gestation: her criticism of Owens for taking so long to write a dedication to her proving the inspiration for the number. “You can’t break a cracked cup” is one of Owens’ mother’s folksy malapropisms, and this saying apparently proved the catalyst for the calypso like lilt of ‘Mother’ – co-written with Will Kimbrough and Danny Wilson (who was in attendance tonight).
‘Love Prevails’ is proof were it needed that you can’t write songs this heartfelt without suffering deep personal loss and it’s maybe some consolation that the tragedy Dean Owens has experienced should prove the basis for a creative, and hopefully cathartic, spark – the song originally written for a project supported by Rodney Crowell, but ultimately submitted too late for its inclusion.
The absence of a proper dressing room in which to retire makes leaving the stage impractical so on conclusion of his set Dean says, “we’ll finish with this one and then start (the encore) with another.” Owens and Maving then play the first song Owens wrote with Will Kimbrough for the album, a song apparently inspired by copious amounts of tequila shots. It’s the opening track and first single from the ‘Southern Wind’ album so it’s maybe a pleasant irony that they choose to end the set with ‘The Last Song.’ A collaboration which is an affectionate paean to his musical heroes, it’s a suitably swinging, end-of-the-night Faces influenced pub rock song, which also name checks Owens’ and Kimbrough’s inspirations – David Bowie, Ian McLagan and Ronnie Lane. Prefacing the encore, Dean Owens says, “we’re now going to finish with a song written by Great Uncle Buck,” by which he means another musical idol, Buck Owens, and not John Candy – ‘Love’s Gonna Live Here’ – a twangy country classic song, sounding like something Buck might well have cooked up in conjunction with another Owens’ favourite, Hank Williams.
Overall, tonight provided evidence of how much hard work and dedication went into the recording of ‘Southern Wind’, and that taking the time out in Nashville to work with with such high class musicians and producers as Nielson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough has paid real dividends – with strong backing from both ‘At The Helm’ records and Dean’s manager, Morag Neil. If tonight’s show lacked the vocal and instrumental frills that add so much to the atmosphere of the album itself, then it was still a hugely enjoyable hour’s entertainment and testimony that Dean Owens is deserving of a much larger audience the next time he comes to London.