Small Venue Heroes – Withered Hand

Withered hand

Withered Hand is the name Dan Willson goes by when he’s performing his brilliant songs. At home in Edinburgh, Withered Hand packs out quite large venues, but outside of his adopted home, he concedes that small venues are where he tends to perform… at least on a good night.

Straight up, I confess to being a fan, and one of those people bemused that Withered Hand isn’t an international superstar. From the first time I saw him perform I was convinced he was destined to be packing out major venues around the world. I still am, really. Indie-folk might be the easiest label for Withered Hand, and quite often he will perform solo, just with his acoustic guitar and his brilliant songs. He first came to wider attention as part of the Fence Collective, the influential, loose, alt.folk grouping based around King Creosote’s indie label up in the East Neuk of Fife, that was home for artists including Pictish Trail, James Yorkston and Kid Canaveral. The quality of his early work was widely recognised and Rolling Stone USA picked him out as an ‘artist to watch’.

I last saw Withered Hand at Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms at the end of 2019, playing with his full band, a string section, various special guests and selling out three different shows covering both of his albums and a night of b-sides, rarities and covers. As usual, his devoted local fanbase sang all the words, smiled at the usual guileless onstage bumbling around between songs, laughed at Willson’s sweet but insightful banter and just generally cheered the roof off. There’s a lot of love at a Withered Hand gig, not just between the audience and performer, but also embedded in every song. These are not your usual love songs: Willson had a cult Christian fundamentalist upbringing and although he’s no longer part of the church, it’s profoundly affected how he sees the world around him. His love songs cover the carnal, the religious, devotional, familial and all stops in between. He tends to keep the songwriting simple, but he has a strong sense of melody and his lyrics are profound and affecting, always shrewdly observed and laced with warmth and gentle humour.

Family remains vitally important to Withered Hand, and over the years he’s tried to balance his music with being a husband and father. Like a lot of other small venue heroes, he’s made decisions regarding bigger tours and other commitments in the context of what’s best for the family. He’s recently signed to Reveal Records (Lau, Eddi Reader, Boo Hewerdine) and he’s poised to start work on his third album in the next few weeks. He’ll be working again with Tony Doogan (Belle and Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub) who produced the last album, ‘New Gods’. It’s been a ten-year gap between albums but Willson has said he needs quite a bit of time to work on new songs. Happily, the pay-off is well worth it.

I listen to a lot of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, Ian Felice, Jeff Tweedy, Jason Molina… you know the kind of thing… insightful singers with interesting voices. When I listen to Withered Hand, I still get the feeling that he belongs in that rarefied company. In the meantime, check out your local small venue and, with a bit of luck, you might find him there.

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