Just in case we needed any persuasion to come out and see Jarrod Dickenson on his sold-out ‘Unplugged & Distilled’ tour, he ensured everyone was welcomed to the show with a taste of Balcones Whisky, all the way from Dickenson’s hometown of Waco, Texas. Their ‘Baby Blue’ has a southern kick, the ‘Texas Rye’ is spicy, and the single malt is dark, complex and has a sweet finish. All of these flavours nicely sum up Jarrod Dickenson’s warm, whisky voice and easy, smooth vocal delivery. When Dickenson took to the stage, he declared, “First thing’s first,” and took a sip of Balcones to claps from the appreciative crowd.
The opening song was a slow, beautifully balanced rendition of ‘Ain’t Waiting Any Longer’. A feature of the song and, indeed, the entire set was the magical backing vocals of Claire Dickenson. The gorgeous blend of the couple’s voices was often delivered eyes-closed, lost in the music. The intensity of the connection between the two led to some genuinely emotional moments, such as ‘In the Meantime’ and particularly the rich sound of ‘Your Heart Belongs to Me’, which is unashamedly romantic and transported listeners far away from a chilly Norwich evening.
One of the many highlights was an old favourite, ‘The Northern Sea’. Dickenson’s singing was deep and resonant; like rye whisky, it was at once low and tingling. The retro condenser microphone, which was used for a few intimate songs on Dickenson’s last tour, was used throughout this show, creating a warm, full sound and showcasing Dickenson’s range and distinctive tone. ‘The Northern Sea’ was followed by ‘LA Freeway’, sung as a tribute to a fellow Texan, Guy Clark. Dickenson lived in LA for a while and noted that, “Six months felt like twenty years.” Complete with a lovely finger-picking solo, it was a worthy arrangement of a classic song and led onto Dickenson’s own song about escaping LA, ‘Nothing More’. Dickenson is a storyteller; this song is one that draws the listener into a simple, romantic narrative and the couple’s voices entwined to great effect.
Dickenson showcased some new songs that might make their way onto an album he hopes to record in 2020. The pick of these were the rhythmic ‘Born to Wander’ with its strong strum and the more delicate ‘Take Me at My Word’, which is about not giving up on a long-distance relationship. There was also the amusing festive treat, ‘Shopping Mall Santa’s Lament’, released as a single in time for Christmas and featuring both Dickensons playing the kazoo. The set finished with ‘Goodnight’, written for Dickenson’s Grandfather, with whom he had a deep connection. After Dickenson spoke about his grandparents’ 73-year marriage, the lyric took us back in time, “Do you remember the start of it all // Back in the summer of ’39” and led us through their life together. When Dickenson sang, “Not ready to say goodnight” the audience were entirely absorbed in the hushed intimacy of the moment. This was a fitting end to the main part of the set before an encore performance of Gary Portnoy’s theme from Cheers, ‘Where Everybody Knows Your Name’ drew applause and laughter from the crowd.
It was a real pleasure to see opening act, Darrin Bradbury, play nine engaging solo songs to begin proceedings. Bradbury started with an almost-spoken version of ‘Strange Bird’; like all Bradbury’s songs, his delivery and lyrics were full of intelligent humour. There was frequent laughter as Bradbury took us on a journey through his wry observations and amusing anecdotes. In ‘The Wedding Song’, Bradbury sang, “Love is a lie you tell yourself // To soften the blow that you’ll die alone.” That humour comes from some dark places. Other highlights were the funny ‘Breakfast’, which has 7,000 plays on Spotify, making it Bradbury’s ‘hit’ song, and ‘The Trouble with Time’, an atmospheric number sung with Margo Price on his recent album release ‘Talking Dogs & Atom Bombs’. Bradbury proved himself to be a terrifically engaging and entertaining performer and he made a welcome return to the stage towards the close of Dickenson’s set. Darrin Bradbury performed superbly, had the crowd hooked and is well-worth catching live.
The cosy setting and staging complemented the acoustic versions of Dickenson’s songs, which were well-received by the audience. This unplugged tour-with-a-twist was a reminder of his storytelling, songcraft and distinctive vocals before he heads back into the studio next year. Dickenson frequently tours over in the UK and his shows come highly recommended to anyone who is yet to catch him live.