If there's ever a movie made of And the Ass Saw the Angel, Nick Cave's 1990 paean to demented hillbilly gospel and gristle, there ain't nobody better to score it than Johnny Dowd.
Equal parts Cave, Hank Williams, Tom Waits, Don Van Vliet, Jim Carroll, and noir novelist Jim Thompson, Dowd does the murder ballad like no one else, with beatnik balls and a throat full of rotgut and rocks. His new record, Cemetery Shoes, has its share of weird whimsy, too -- the campy tranny ballad "Wedding Dress," for instance, and the mournful humor of "Christmas Is Just Another Day." But "Christmas ..." isn't just another of Dowd's sad-sack circus tunes. "Most of my songs have an element of something about me," he says, in a drawl as wide and craggy as a canyon, "but that one was pretty much straight up how I feel. It's kind of odd for me to write a song like that, that I can see myself in." Dowd peppers his speech with the word "odd," ironic since, by his own admission, he has very few musical peers. Though he got his first guitar at age seventeen, he didn't start playing music till his late thirties. "Musically," he says, "I feel I'm in my early or mid-twenties. Physically, I feel like I'm in my late seventies or eighties."
Though Sally Timms has been playing music since her teens and joined up with the legendary Mekons at age 26, her willingness to experiment certainly puts her in Dowd's off-kilter, rootsy realm. On her newest solo record, In the World of Him, the tart English singer slips into the perspective of male songwriters, covering songs by Mark Eitzel, Jon Langford, and Dowd himself. Dowd shares production duties on In the World of Him with Timms and Justin Asher. So did Dowd do his part to help Timms into some of those male personas? "She doesn't need help getting into a male persona," he says. "She needs help getting into her dress."
Johnny Dowd opens up for Sally Timms at the Starry Plough Saturday. 9:30 p.m. start time, $10 cover. 510-841-2082.
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