The Norwich Arts Centre was packed out for a Friday night in the company of Jarrod Dickenson and friends. Dickenson has performed at this converted church a number of times over the years and commented on being back, particularly noting the large and striking church windows. The acoustics are great and it’s certainly a fitting venue for a congregation to be held in the sway of a compelling talker and performer. There was a large audience in attendance; many will have been inspired to attend by the quality of Dickenson’s recent album release ‘Big Talk’, from which most of the set was taken. The songs are great on record, variously rocking, stomping, swampy and defiant and they make for a particularly stirring live show. Adding to the atmosphere and the performance were Dickenson’s friends and fellow singer-songwriters JP Ruggieri and David Ford.
JP Ruggieri is an incredibly gifted and technical musician whose songs are crafted carefully and with precision. It was a treat to see him opening for Dickenson as well as playing in his band. As an added bonus, the acclaimed singer-songwriter David Ford supported both Dickenson and Ruggieri, clearly just enjoying playing with his friends. He’s a major talent in his own right and a wonderful live performer but, here, he allowed others to shine. For Ruggieri, Ford provided backing vocals and keys that really swelled and filled out the sound and the space. Ruggieri has a brand new album out, ‘Gradually Descend Into Chaos’, and most of the songs in his set were drawn from this. The live versions have a very different feel, focused more around his grooving guitar work, fingers flying around the fretboard. He started on electric guitar for the first couple of songs: the jangling rhythms and blended stylings of ‘Kill a Smile’ and ‘Up By the River’. The latter has a particularly memorable, sing-along chorus and was a highlight amongst Ruggieri’s songs. He then switched to acoustic guitar for a more delicate rendition of ‘Weeds and Flowers’, a song of resignation: “There’s nothing you can do to make her stay // You know weeds always grow and flowers go away.” Ruggieri looked to the 2019 album ‘Waiting on You’ for the gentle, light groove of ‘Bumble Bee’ before returning to the new record for ‘Without the Sun’, which features Oliver Wood on the album version. He finished his set with ‘The Meaning’, which featured an exquisite solo, fingers up and down and all around the frets. The image that stays in the mind is of David Ford and JP Ruggieri with their eyes closed, lost in the music.
After a short break, Jarrod Dickenson took to the stage, accompanied as always by Claire Dickenson whose pure, clear voice always combines beautifully with his warm-whisky tones. Ruggieri supplied additional guitar while the multi-talented David Ford played bass and kick-drum creating a full-band sound and filling Dickenson’s songs with life and vitality. Dickenson began on electric guitar for the warmly melodic and hummable ‘Home again’ which could slip easily into the songbook of any of the finest folky singer-songwriters of the 1970s. With a soaring chorus, it’s a song of yearning, perfect for the opener on a tour far from home: “Another night, another flight // Another dawning day // All that’s ever close to me // Is a thousand miles away.” This was followed by ‘Prefer to Lose’ which was co-written with Ruggieri and appears on both of their new albums. It’s a song with a great groove that will be familiar to fans who attended last year’s shows as Dickenson’s recent album ‘Big Talk’ was a long time coming and he had tried out some of these songs on the previous tour.
From there, Dickenson mixed up songs from the new record and his previous release, ‘Ready the Horses’. On the slower, mesmerising ‘In the Meantime’ and ‘Born to Wander’, Ruggieri delivered excellent sweeping slide guitar almost like another wailing voice in the mix. Dickenson played his 12-string acoustic on the latter, his vocal firm and gritty, while the song was propelled by a powerful rhythm. Then, Jarrod and Claire were left on the stage alone to sing the beautiful ballad ‘Your Heart Belongs to Me’. This is such a timeless song, a deeply romantic tale, written specifically to be sung as a duet with the back and forth vocal, like a conversation between lovers, mirroring the sensitive lyrics. He noted that they have been married seven and half years now and this song was written together from a distance when they had to spend time apart, something that became more common during the pandemic: “We did it long before it was big!” The delicate 2019 single ‘Take Me at My Word’ was equally gorgeous, another heartfelt ballad in which the pair’s voices entwine beautifully.
Ford and Ruggieri returned for the swaggering ‘Buckle Under Pressure’. Dickenson explained that his record label had told him they were going to shelve his last record and this was written in his head on the 12-hour journey back home. It is a song of defiance that’s perfect for a live show, bursting with energy and urgency. The band were really rolling by now and the compelling sway of fan favourite ‘Faint of Heart’, the opening track from ‘Ready the Horses’, pulsed with foot-stomps and the rattle of Claire’s tambourine. Another song from that album, ‘Nothing More’, featured a truly haunting slide solo from Ruggieri and lovely backing from Claire, who commanded the centre of the stage throughout the show. Ruggieri’s notes seemed to really pop on the bright-sounding ‘If You’re Looking’, a song full of positivity about the strength of a relationship in spite of everything else going on. There was more foot-stamping to the jangling, grooving, stirring ‘Bamboozled’, which lays into a certain former President. Almost spoken at times, Dickenson’s delivery is like a grandstanding political speech, while the instruments crash and romp throughout this tumultuous song, a highlight of the show. He then growled his way through the rocking ‘With Any Luck’ before taking us back in time, playing ‘Come What May’, the only song from 2012’s ‘The Lonesome Traveler’. With its sweet vocal melody and gorgeous finger-picking, this song contrasts nicely with much of Dickenson’s newer material.
Jarrod Dickenson shares a very positive rapport with his fans and the set was full of good-humour. A fine example was when he joked about whether to do an encore, noting that to go backstage to the dressing room involves going up a flight of stairs that are nowhere near the stage. If there was to be an encore, then ‘Come What May’ would be the ‘last song’ but, if not, there were three more songs to go. The first song of the ‘non-core’ was ‘Goodnight’, a deeply personal song written about Dickenson’s grandparents; the words tell their life story, their love story, and the song serves as a remarkable, thought-provoking, moving tribute to them. He shared some details about them, their lives and their 73 year-long marriage, talking with great fondness. His low melody and honey-voiced memories were performed beautifully, full of real emotion. That’s a hard song to follow up, but Dickenson and the band soon had everyone moving with a cover of ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ and they finished up with a gritty ‘Long Hard Look’ from the new album.
I’ve seen Jarrod Dickenson live many times and his shows are always captivating. However, with the power and swagger of his new songs, this was possibly his best performance yet. Perhaps it was the sense of release from throwing off the shackles of his record label and his light subsequently bursting through the gloom of recent years. Perhaps it was the quality of his collaborators. Perhaps it was the energy of the crowd, which filled the reimagined church of the Norwich Arts Centre. Either way, this was a confident, commanding showing, driven by dynamic musicianship, characterful vocals and a set of timeless, high-quality songs. Dickenson’s new album, ‘Big Talk’, comes highly recommended and the songs translate well to the stage and made for a memorable show.