A London landmark, The Betsey Trotwood pub has been extending a warm welcome for well over a century. The Betsey has also built a deserved reputation as a music venue, nothing fancy, a couple of tables and chairs pushed back to create a space for a few guitars and keyboard. The amplification has to go up on a shelf among all the quirky artefacts that give this wonderful place so much character. This convivial atmosphere was the ideal venue for Scottish singer/songwriter Dean Owens and his Southerners who are ace guitarist Jim Maving and keys and bass player (at the same time) Tom Collison.
Described as ‘Celtic spirit, Country soul’ Owens has made seven solo albums, collaborated with some top US musicians and has been on the road constantly. Owens ties the roots of the Old World with those of the New. He tells captivating stories that draw on his own experience and emotions frequently dipping into the history of both sides of the Atlantic.
A modest man, none of this features in his intro. Referring to the gloomy evening outside Owens promised a bunch of melancholy songs before descending into his really miserable collection. Though true to his word for much of his first set there was no rush for the door.
Given the venue, ‘When the Whisky’s Not Enough’ was an apt opener. Standing with closed eyes, Owens wrung every drop of emotion about lost love with a hopelessness reminiscent of Townes Van Zandt. His two amigos were seated on either side; Maving’s sparing slide licks and Collison’s delicate keyboard chords just added to the sentiment.
Slightly less melancholic but still sad, ‘Elvis Was My Brother’ told of a boy whose childhood was so lonely his dad’s record collection were his only friends. These first two songs came from Owens’ most recent album, Southern Wind as did’Anything Helps’ about a homeless guy he saw standing by a freeway holding up a sign saying just that. Owens evoked the sheer despair of having nowhere to live, Maving’s picking and lonely whistle replaced a convivial London pub with a desolate US freeway.
Closer to home Owens has written much about his family some of which featured tonight. ‘Man From Leith’ painted a vivid and loving picture of his father; dock worker, soldier and boxer. If sometimes unsure of who he is Owens is comforted that ‘somewhere over my shoulder is the man from Leith’. ‘Dora’ goes back to his grandmother who grew up in a travelling circus. Her dad was a lion tamer and by coincidence, prompted by this very song, the audience contained someone else who could claim a predecessor in the same line of business. When his mum felt left out Owens wrote ‘Mother’ where to an almost reggae beat, “you see the best in everyone, you made us a happy home”. ‘Up on The Hill’ is where Dean and his dog go to contemplate. By now the pace had picked up and Maving’s slide cut like the Edinburgh wind on that hillside.
Through his storytelling Owens creates a bond with his audience, something he strengthens with his chat between songs. He combines a wry sense of humour with his passion for social justice. Owens is on the side of the underdog and he doesn’t mince his words. Nowhere was this more forceful than in ‘Reservations’ from Buffalo Blood, his collaboration with Neilson Hubbard, Audrey Spillman and Joshua Britt. From their travels on the Cherokee Trail of Tears they made an album and film about displacement and the power of the human spirit. This song alone conveyed the brutal treatment meted out to the native Americans, for more take a look at www.buffaloblood.com.
Equally powerful were ‘Southern Wind’ which won Owens ‘UK Song of the Year’ at this year’s Americana Music Association-UK awards, and ‘Last Song’. They may have been three but with some fine harmonica from Owens, together the Southerners tore it up.
Owens paid tribute to his big influences. ‘The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin’ took the tempo up a few gears. Maving and Collison are so versatile that they may have been the Southerners but for this song it was ‘Dean Owens And The Trotwood Two’, right down to the boom chicka boom. To close, Dean Owens and The Southerners tipped their collective hat to Ronnie Lane with ‘Annie’. “God Bless Us All”.
Perhaps because country music has always had such a strong following in Scotland it never went out of fashion. Many of Scotland’s finest artists have stamped their mark by blending country roots with their own traditions. Dean Owens is right up there with his own distillation of ‘Celtic spirit, Country soul’. Sassenachs Jim Maving and Tom Collison showed their class in their ability to intensify that mix with their own styles and skills. The result was much the strongest intoxicant on offer in The Betsey Trotwood last Sunday.