Stadium superstars have their place, but it’s watching artists like Jarrod Dickenson in small venues where the live experience becomes truly personal and we feel like we’re part of a close community of fans and music lovers. Having seen Dickenson perform at a number of small venues, such as The Horn in St Alban’s, Norwich Arts Centre and Cambridge’s Portland Arms, I can certainly recommend him as a hero of these intimate musical spaces. He has appeared in my writing for Americana UK on many occasions – in reviews of live shows and an EP, my selection for the best albums of this century and in my ‘Nights to Remember’, in video posts and an interview. It’s fair to say that I’m a fan. Above all, what sets Dickenson apart is the quality of his voice, combining the richness of honey and a warming whisky. There’s a depth to it, a sense of character and experience, a lived-in fullness, that sweeps the listener along the currents of his delightful melodies.
This year, it’s the tenth anniversary of the release of ‘The Lonesome Traveller’, an astonishingly beautiful collection of folky Americana songs that deserve our attention. The record was engineered, mixed, mastered and co-produced by GRAMMY-winning Ryan Freeland, who has worked with the likes of Rodney Crowell, Aimee Mann and Ray LaMontagne. Each song is masterful in it’s composition, arrangement and crisp production. Many of the favourites from this album continue to be played in Dickenson’s live sets. For example, I can still remember him opening his set at Norwich Arts Centre in February 2019 with the atmospheric ‘The Northern Sea’. For this show, Dickenson was joined on stage by his support act, the outstanding J.P. Ruggieri, who supplied haunting pedal steel for this song and many others. The period in this gig when the performers gathered around the retro-styled homemade condenser microphone and Dickenson stated, “We wanted to make this an intimate affair,” remains one of my most memorable live experiences; it really did feel like we were privileged to be watching an intimate singalong amongst friends.
In 2017, Dickenson released the brilliant ‘Ready the Horses’ (though this has had a global release more recently). This album made it into my list of the best albums of the 20th century. Filled with well-crafted songs and blending elements of blues, country and folk, the record feels so complete and accomplished, it has remained as rewarding as it was on first listen. Beginning with the powerful ‘Faint of Heart’, the opening trio of songs are as good as that of any album I can recall. Later on, the adventurous, Tom Waits-like ‘Gold Rush’ is full of moody rhythm, storytelling character and grit. All the songs are layered with sonic textures and depths that keep revealing themselves over time. A highlight is the heart-warming and unashamedly romantic duet with Dickenson’s wife Claire ‘Your Heart Belongs to Me’, which features a delightful melody and a perfectly-pitched back-and-forth conversation between the couple. It must be added here that one of the most joyful aspects of a Jarrod Dickenson show is that he is always accompanied by Claire on vocals throughout. Quite simply, her voice is gorgeous and combines brilliantly with his.
Jarrod Dickenson seems to tour relentlessly, supporting the likes of Grant-Lee Phillips, Don McLean and Ethan Johns and being supported by such artists as J.P. Ruggieri, Dillon Warnek and Darrin Bradbury. During the pandemic lockdowns, he put on regular Thursday-night livestream shows that helped get some of us through and always (deliberately) finished just in time for us to go outside and clap for the NHS. He is a great storyteller and songwriter but, most of all, he is a touring performer – the very definition of ‘small venue hero’. In our 2018 interview, he said: “Being able to share your experience with an audience – that’s the part that I love,” and that love shows. For this ‘Small Venue Hero’ piece, Dickenson told AUK: “As for touring and in particular, touring small, intimate venues, they are indeed the lifeblood of our genre. These spaces give both fans and artists a chance to connect on a much more personal level; something that is hugely important for our kind of music. I can say with full confidence that for me personally, I wouldn’t have the foundation and the loyal fan base that I have if it weren’t for the wonderful small venues I’ve been lucky enough to frequent.” He also shared that he has new music on the way very soon.
Back in 2019, Jarrod Dickenson’s ‘Unplugged and Distilled’ tour even included free whisky for the audience. Does a small venue gig get any more intimate, friendly and welcoming than that? Jarrod Dickenson and his music deserve a greater, broader audience with wider recognition to match the critical acclaim and the passion of his core fanbase. Until then, he is heroic in a small venue and, if you get the chance to see him live, you should.
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