Devon Sproule & Jimmy Dowling
Live at the Courthouse, Mullumbimby, NSW
Sunday September 14, 2014

By Martin Jones

The erudite clan who follow Mary Cannon’s Sunday afternoon series at the Courthouse Hotel in Mullumbimby were treated to an unforgettable afternoon of music yesterday as Canadian-born, US-based singer-songwriter Devon Sproule paid a visit supported by world class local outfit the Jimmy Dowling Combo. It turned out to be a brilliant matching of artists, Sproule inspired by Dowling’s enigmatic story telling and his band’s musical chops, and Dowling’s band inspired to jump up on stage with Sproule to lend a hand. Mutual admiration was evident and this was affecting for we lucky audience members.

Dowling is emerging as an heir to Don Walker’s role as a true Australian poet of the people. Just as enigmatic and charismatic, Dowling steps up with a simple acoustic guitar, a batch of witty stories and a striking voice that occasionally reminds me of Chet Baker in its deliberate phrasing and pure tone. And like Baker, Dowling sings with the authority of experience. This afternoon he’s gathered a potent band of local musicians in Warren Earl, Matt Bone and Grant Gerathy. With bare bones instrumentation and amplification, the trio colour Dowling’s songs gracefully, Earl in particularly delivering some spellbinding solos on the more jazzy outings. Dowling caps off the set (literally) by crooning a tear-inducing rendition of ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ in full costume.

Sproule steps up to the stage armed with only her ancient Gibson ES-125 and a voice from heaven. Following Dowling’s lead, she engages the audience with intimate monologues between songs, talking about the songs, her life, and her newfound attraction to Australia. Her guitar sounds gorgeous through Earl’s vintage Gibson amp and she demonstrates a strong instrumental vocabulary, stretching way beyond the standard half-dozen chords most singer-songwriters get by on. Sproule has been performing live for almost twenty years and has learned how to deliver a riveting solo show, without the need for a backing band. That said, when bassist Matt Bone and drummer Grant Gerathy do jump on stage to play along to the upbeat ‘Old Virginia Block’, it lifts the night to a new level, musicians and listeners alike beaming with pleasure.

Sproule begins her set with a selection of newer material from Colours, her collaboration with Mike O’Neill. ‘You Can Come Home’, ‘The Fan’, ‘You Can’t Help It’, and ‘The Shallow End’ prove possibly more affecting in solo rendition than they do in their recorded form.
But it’s the older material that really strikes a chord with the audience – impossible to resist songs like, ‘Let’s Go Out’, ‘Keep Your Silver Shined’, and ‘Old Virginia Block’ coruscating with lyrical and musical agility. The encore of ‘Stop By Anytime’ is the perfect icing on the cake. Impossible to pigeonhole, Sproule bridges ancient folk and contemporary pop with flair and grace, and has the rare ability to enthral an audience on her own. Go and see her while she’s in this country, you’ll thank yourself a thousand times over.

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Pulicity Images

Jimmy Dowling with The Soup Kitchen Giants. (L -R Warren Earl , Jimmy Dowling, Matt Bone) Click to download Hi-res Photo by Kate Ford - First Light Studio



Recently I have been re-reading Matthew Crawford's 2009 book Shop Class As Soulcraft in which he argues that technology has disempowered us. I have to agree.

Jimmy Dowling's new album is the perfect example of true "soulcraft." It will not make the ARIA charts yet it is far superior to almost everything that appears there. Dowling will not fill stadiums but if you catch him in a little pub somewhere he could make you cry. Listening to Common Lot is like stumbling across a lovingly built artefact in some out of the way store — something that you can cherish but which others might never have the joy of witnessing.

Dowling has worked around the world and now lives in northern New South Wales. He has the voice of someone who has lived life not read about in newspapers or seen it in a television documentary: it is "worldly," not world weary, and he sings about the sorts of things that affect us all— love, success, aging, drinking, the landscape.

He also writes with the keen eye of a poet: the images stay with you long after a song has finished. He is a storyteller par excellence and you get the feeling that he might have a fine novel in him if he ever has the patience. Even a song such as the slightly swaggering and staggering 'Vodka's Calling My Name', with lyrics so minimal they do not even appear in the enclosed lyric booklet, is still stunning (and sounds as if it was written for Tom Waits).

Common Lot was recorded in Melbourne at the Tender Trap studios with co-producers Roger Bergodaz and Garrett Costigan, both of whom between them also contribute guitar, drums and backing vocals. Costigan adds his famous pedal steel flourishes on two tracks and dobro on others. Other accomplices include Matt Walker and Red Rivers on guitar, Steve Hadley (double bass), Andy Baylor on fiddle and Tony Hargreaves (piano accordion, piano).

'Calendar Girl' opens the album with a meditation on change and vivid images of "swarf and grinding burs," "crofton weeds and oleanders." 'Broken Down Cowboy' is adorned by Matt Walker's pleading guitar emphasising the yearning as Dowling sings about being a "bruised raggedy little toy. Looking like desperation in all that noise."

In 'Rhetorical Questions' Dowling sings of "rusty dog spikes and old bottles with painted labels" while Bay-Ior's lonesome fiddle haunts the back-ground. 'Walking Mistake' features a full ensemble that fleshes out a gently rolling song redolent with memories. 'Queenslander' traces the demise of an old house and you can almost picture its "castle of wood decaying." 'A Concertina And The Portuguese Waltz' begins with a strident guitar line (from Dean Droulliard) and closes with a striking guitar solo of which Neil Young would be proud!

Common Lot might have arrived unheralded but it is beautifully crafted and, if you are wavering, can make you believe in the power music again.




Apparently, Jimmy Dowling now works in northern New South Wales, but he went to Melbourne to record, having lived there for some years. He has worked the land and the sea (which is evident here), on an island and also spent some time in Toronto (which has a thriving and interesting music scene) and other places in Canada and the USA. Dowling sounds like a troubadour in the mould of Shane MacGowan and has a voice of similar distinctive quality, but in this case it is a little like Paul Kelly's delivery — world-worn yet not weary. Like MacGowan and Kelly he writes about everyday experiences of working people —fishermen, miners, farmers. He has released a previous album and this latest one arrived with the same complete lack of fanfare. Other musicians are raving about him but word of mouth can only go so far. However, after the first listen I had to immediately replay the album just to check that it was as good as I thought it was. It is.

What distinguishes Dowling from a host of other singer songwriters playing acoustic guitar is the depth of the songs, the imagery and conciseness of the lyrics and the quality of the musicians enlisted to help out. Amongst the guests here are the great Garrett Costigan on high, lonesome pedal steel, Shannon Bourne on electric guitar, Mark Elton on double bass, Will Swan on accordion, Ashley Jones on fiddle, Michael Parker with Uilleann pipes along with co-producers in drummer Roger Bergodaz on drums and Sime Nugent on harmonica.

"It could have been worse/you might have been stuck here lone in this leaking old house," sings Dowling on the opening song, 'Sunken Glass,' in which he conjures images of "money through a fisherman's hand" and Victoria as "that cloudy, windy old state" while he describes the life of the trawlermen.

The title track, follows an instrumental opening in 'Hangin',' while on 'Bamboo Culm' he sings about "rusted old Hoidens and a house without a window" and a "kingdom" that most of would recognise. 'Emily Gardiners Ghost,' with its appropriately eerie instrumentation is striking in its beauty. 'Stale Bread' tells the story of a prison ship where the captive sings over a chain-rattling backing, "you dirty floggin' dogs, ya mongrels". It is on a par with Van Walker's Dylanesque 'Dark Rider' as one of my songs of the year. The reflective 'Easter Basket' closes the record with Dowling's voice at the forefront. Dead Man's Lullaby is only 3o minutes long and, like the early Ry Cooder albums of similar length, all killer no filler. If someone tells you there are no great new Australian songwriters then you can play this album to them. It is stunning.