With reports that around only 30 folk had attended his Manchester show two days earlier, there was some concern that the numbers for this Jesse Dayton performance in the East End of London would also prove on the low side, so it was somewhat reassuring to see increasing numbers of people wandering downstairs into the cavern-like setting of the Sebright Arms shortly after Russ Tolman had finished his set – particularly seeing as Dayton had already played at Red Rooster the previous Friday and the ‘Country on a Sunday’ festival in Putney last weekend.
With little pre-amble at 9.10pm, the Jesse Dayton trio launch headlong into the piledriving ‘Daddy Was A Bad Ass’. Mid-song, Dayton pauses to reflect on the vagaries of the British weather: “Last weekend it was beautiful; now it’s pissing like a camel on a flat rock.” Before barely pausing for breath we’re pummelled by the straight to the gut punch of ‘Holy Ghost Rock ‘n’ Roller’. His dedication to the vibe of outlaw country music, the Waylon-inspired, ‘The Way We Are’ follows next. Dayton is ably supported tonight by Chris Rhoades on bass and Mike Stinson, songwriter and drummer extraordinaire. In fact, it’s the Stinson-penned twang of ‘May Have to Do It (Don’t Have To Like It)’ that follows – a song which dwells on day jobs in his past he’d just as soon as forget: “Aunt Jemima said that Uncle Sam wants to send me to Afghanistan/Help bring you back on the family plan and I hope you don‘t mind the sand.”
Dayton’s paean to his hero George Jones, ‘Possum Ran Over My Grave’, is dedicated to the assembled throng, whom he refers to as “all the recovering rockabilly people with a mortgage, 2.3 kids and a minivan – now getting into some old school honky-tonk shit.” That’s some life changing experience with which Dayton can clearly relate. ‘Possum’ segues straight into ‘Hurtin’ Behind The Pine Curtain’ with its almost metal rock guitar riff, Dayton’s soloing demonstrating what an accomplished player of the telecaster he is.
Dayton can deliver on the political, as well as the cheating and drinking songs. ‘Charlottesville’ is a passionate indictment of the far right in the US, as well as a heartfelt dedication to Heather Heyer who was killed during the fascist ‘Unite the Right’ rally – the only saving grace for Dayton in these dark times being that “surely the best punk rocking band is going to come out of all this bullshit”, although given the state of popular music right now you wouldn’t like to bet on it.
While the early part of the set features songs from ‘The Revealer’, his 2016 album, last year’s ‘The Outsider’, gets a look in as well with the bluesy sounding ‘Burnin’’ and the stomping rock of ‘Jail House Religion’ – a song about the propensity of prisoners to adopt religious beliefs for the duration of their stay until the day they get released “when the party’s back on” – with its repeated refrain: “Jesus gonna wash me in the water”.
On last year’s tour Dayton’s set featured a cover of ‘Lately I’ve Let Things Slide’, by Nick Lowe, whereas tonight the spirt of Joe Stummer is invoked, with an energetic rendition of ‘Bankrobber’ by the Clash, the second single from his forthcoming album ‘Mixtape Volume 1’ due out in August. This contrasts with the hillbilly run through of ‘I’m At Home Getting Hammered While She’s Out Gettin Nailed’ which gives Stinson and Rhoades the chance to wig out on the drums and bass, the song featuring a brief mid-section of Merle Haggard’s ‘Honky Tonk Nightime Man’.
The comedic as well as the musical hits keep on coming. “I’m sweating like Margaret Thatcher at a Damned concert”, he declares before introducing another Mike Stinson number, the rocking, love-gone-wrong song, ‘Take Out the Trash’, which has some more inspired guitar playing. A short, knock off ditty about ‘Camden Town’ – “Got all drunk on twenty pounds/While the London rain kept pissing down”, precedes ‘Killer On The Lam‘, his “murder ballad”. Dayton is right to say that turn of the twentieth century bluesgrass music can more than match the likes of metal bands like Slayer in their depiction of guts and gore, and he’s more than capable of mimicking extreme lyrical imagery himself. ‘Killer On The Lam’ tells the tale from the perspective of a psychopath who “Killed a Christian family of the Pentecost/A Georgia cracker was talkin’ at me/So I cut out his tongue hung it from a tree.” That makes anything Nick Cave ever released seem tame by comparison.
Before finishing with the red neck Hayes Carll co-write, ‘3 Pecker Goat’, we get asked if we want a Waylon song, before a very accomplished cover version of ‘Lonesome, On’ry and Mean’. Having worked alongside music greats like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, Jesse Dayton not only performs covers of the giants of country music with aplomb, but his own material is not embarrassed by comparisons to them. His extensive back catalogue which now runs to 11 studio albums may be largely unknown to a UK audience, so it’s great that the more than 50 songs he’s licensed to film and television, have helped underpin his regular touring schedule.
Ultimately, it’s in his ability to mix rockabilly, with punk, hillbilly blues, country, primal rock’n’roll and folk that Dayton truly excels and his smorgasbord of musical sounds demonstrate an innate understanding that the divisions between country and R&B, rock and soul – or any sort of indigenous Texas music – are negligible at best. He’s pursued his own unique furrow for 24 years now and shows no sign of stopping. And for that we should be grateful.
With thanks to Alan Powell for the photos.