Johnny Dowd “Is Heaven Real? How Would I Know”

Brightspark Records, 2023

Johnny Dowd heads back to Memphis for impressive 19th studio record.

Artwork for "Is Heaven Real" by Johnny Dowd. Picture by Jon Langford‘Wrong Side Of Memphis’ was the title of Johnny Dowd’s first solo album released in 1995 after the demise of his band Neon Baptist.  The present sees Dowd returning to the city where he spent part of his formative years to record his latest, ‘Is Heaven Real? How Would I Know’ at Delta-Sonic Sound with co-producers Bruce Watson and Will Sexton.

Dowd brings regular bandmates Mike Edmondson (guitar) and sister Jif Dowd (drums) from Ithaca, NY while Watson and Sexton call upon their fellow Memphis musicians including Amy Lavere (bass, vocals), Rick Steff and Alex Greene (keyboards), Shawn Zorn and Will McCarley (percussion), Jim Spake (horns) and Krista Lynne Wroten (fiddle, vocals) to support and fill out the sound and add a distinctive Memphis feel to the album.

The album, Dowd’s nineteenth studio release, and the first to come out under the Brightspark imprint is released in vinyl (a first) and download form.  The LP cover is a suitably mediaeval picture from Jon Langford. Dowd is a regular visitor to Europe so any reader looking to pick up a copy from the merch table should keep an eye on Dowd’s tour page for dates.

The album’s opening track ‘Mule’ introduces itself with a piano/ fiddle riff which provide the spine to the song as it rolls into “mule kicking in my thoughts, I wanna murder my old lady” chorus. The fiddle leads the song through the outro. ‘Is Heaven Real’ has a soul/ gospel feel to it with the organ to the fore at the outset.  The lyric sees Dowd mixing his musing on the hereafter with nostalgia for his past “You call it Oklahoma, I call it the Promised Land.”  The low-key horns provide a soulful base to the later part of the song.

The third track, ‘Ice Pick’, revisits the nostalgia theme with Dowd and Lavere duetting on a tale of early teen romance whose memory is “like sticking an ice pick in my brain”. The break features a crackling guitar solo from Edmondson which sounds like it teleported from 1965. ‘Pillow’ starts off with a soft piano and clarinet and brushed drums.  In keeping with the overall feel of the album, Dowd finds himself pondering existence and its meaning in a light hearted manner. The clarinet solos in and out of the song against massed percussion before a piano reminiscent of 1950s TV takes us out.

The fifth track and side 1 closer ‘All Shook Up’ announces itself with a bluesy guitar, bass and drums beat. Dowd’s vocal takes us through family, misanthropy and the apocalypse while the chorus nods to Memphis: “I’m all shook up; goodness gracious great balls of fire.” A big horn riff kicks off side 2 and ‘Hope’ which has Dowd in a bar waiting for his date to show (she’s over 4 hours late).  Lavere’s bartender tells him (spoken word) his cause is hopeless. Dowd takes her advice, goes to his car but still can’t give up the titular hope as he heads back for “Another beer, another shot”.

As its title suggest ‘LSD’ is based on ‘memories’ of early tripping.  It’s pretty funny and the baritone sax adds some oomph.  The latter section introduces strings sounds from the mellotron which blend with the sax and clarinet in a sweet outro. ‘Fire and Dust’ is the second Dowd/ Lavere duet.  A classic country tale of adultery, discovery, parting and a mixture of regret / not regret. The two manage to capture the moral dilemma while also smouldering in the “I’d do it again / I’d do it all again” back and forth.

The album concludes with ‘Black And Shiny Crow’ which begins as a mildly comic honky tonk tune including a twangy guitar solo before Lavere’s bass leads off into a jazzy jam in which bass, piano and sax are prominent.  Dowd talks over the jam riffing on religious and family themes before returning to the “Why couldn’t I have been that crow instead of being me” chorus.  The track on the record is over 8 minutes long and fades to close but you get the feeling it went on for some time longer in real life.

The Memphis sound and Dowd’s drawled southern vocal sit at the heart of the album showcasing the variety of both. There aren’t many acts that can stand up a record of quality on their 19th time around; Dowd and team prove they can do just that.


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