EVANGELINE, THE BELIEVERS (Fri.), THE BAND THAT MURDERED SILENCE (Sat.) Tractor Tavern, 206-789-3599, $10
9:30 p.m. Fri., Oct. 18-Sat., Oct. 19
WHILE I WAS waiting for a showcase at the 2000 SXSW, I overheard a guy blabbing about having just seen "this amazing dude in the bar a few doors down—he sounds like Elmer Fudd doing Nick Cave and Captain Beefheart!" Ah, I said to myself. Johnny Dowd's in Austin.
My interest in Ithaca, N.Y., rocker Dowd stretches back to early '97 when a CD arrived on my doorstep with naught for bio aside from a personally signed greeting: "My name is Johnny Dowd. I'm 49 years old and make my living as a moving man in upstate New York. If rock 'n' roll was a religion, I'd be a preacher in need of a church. . . . " By the end of the year, I'd placed Dowd's Wrong Side of Memphis, a jaw-dropping collection of lo-fi country noir and twisted blues, on my annual top 10. A lot of national critics did likewise.
Subsequent releases have found Dowd working under less budget-conscious conditions and accordingly broadening—some would say, "stretching to the point of implosion"—his instrumental palette and sonic vision. So by 2002, Dowd's pickax approach to Americana clearly doesn't mark him as a roots rocker, no more than, say, Giant Sand can be pigeonholed nowadays as alt-country, or Sonic Youth as post-punk noize. Although for lack of a better category ("Hell's Cinema," maybe?), Dowd's latest release, The Pawnbroker's Wife (Catamount), will probably be filed under "Americana," thanks to quirkily infectious tunes like the bleary shuffle "Monkey Run," the strummy "Separate Beds" (Dowd and Kim Sherwood-Caso doing a nice Mark Olsen-Victoria Williams duet), and the fuzztone-driven Los Lobos-styled groover "Judgment Day." Plus, Dowd's blessed/cursed with the kind of acquired-taste vocal style we tend to associate with bluesmen or folkies. I'm not so sure about the Elmer Fudd comparison, but with his Southern-retard drawl and a quavering delivery that sounds like he's perpetually shifting a big chaw from cheek to cheek, Dowd is oddball but endearing enough to guarantee him a job doing cartoon voice-overs should he ever ditch the music.
Still, don't set your clocks based on what you think he'll do next. To wit: The percussive cling-clang and squonky-synth talking blues of "Rose Tattoo" bring to mind a lost Tom Waits gem, Dowd leeringly speak-singing the tune (it's about a bizarre encounter with a pawnbroker—most of his songs involve his characters having less-than-normal encounters), while his choice of two covers—a Santa-joins-Devo take on "Jingle Bells" and an over-the-top show-tune-style version of Lee Hazelwood's "Sleeping in the Grass"—is nothing short of demented.
Perverse sonofabitch. Just the way we like our musical icons.