Review: Jarrod Dickenson – The Belfast Empire
It was an early start to the evening for those headed for the Empire last night. The diverse crowd filled fast, the luckiest of the young and old tucked in at tables while others wobbled on stools or stood, all cosy-ed up and ready for our headliner Jarrod Dickenson to take to the stage, all the way from Texas.
The Waco native is somewhat of a seasoned visitor to the city, not only playing the Empire for the 6th time, but playing to venues across the country since 2011, including the Black Box, the Waterfront and perhaps most pivotal to the Northern Irish music scene – Enniskillen Airport. He’s certainly no stranger to us Belfast folk, be that down to the appeal of our exotic weather and tropical beaches or his wife Clare’s Northern Irish roots – we will just never know.
Visiting on more than one occasion for the Belfast Nashville Songwriter’s Festival as well as his own headline shows, Dickenson has garnered not just a huge Belfast following but one across the UK and Ireland. Since before his debut album ‘Ashes on the Ground’ (2010), the singer-songwriter has been dedicated to life on the road, now spending a majority of his time playing on this side of the world.
Describing his sound as the broad umbrella that is Americana, it is perhaps the rich, varied ingredients that go into such a genre that have hooked Dickenson’s fans – that, and his perfected ability to blend them all together so deliciously. Playing at the Empire fresh off the back of a new release from his upcoming tribute EP ‘Under a Texas Sky’ (out 8th March), Dickenson’s clear love for his musical heroes of the 60s and 70s runs deep throughout his music, his raw voice beautifully carried by sounds reminiscent of his heroes.
Self-proclaimed as able to ‘spin a yarn with the best of them’, Dickenson has released 2 more albums since his first. ‘The Lonesome Traveller’ (2012) offers a largely acoustic vibe while ‘Ready the Horses’ (2017) is louder, diving ‘straight into the whiskey-soaked worlds of soul and junkyard’, all revolving around the incredibly personal lyrics that connect Dickenson with his adoring fans.
Advertised as an early show with no support listed, it perhaps came as a surprise to the room when Dickenson walked on stage with two others, proclaiming his love for the venue as ‘one of his favourite things on the planet’, then introduced his friend JP Ruggieri as first to play a few songs. Described as one of Dickenson’s best friends and ‘one of the best singers and guitar players that I know’, Ruggieri took his place centre stage and kicked off what was to be an incredibly intimate, personal show.
Joined for the first couple of songs with Jarrod and his wife Clare providing gentle harmonies, Ruggieri performed songs from his freshly released debut album ‘Waiting on You’ (2019). Connecting the set with amusing stories, the Nashville based artist sang songs such as Bumble Bee, I Don’t Want to Grow up and Don’t Break My Heart armed only with a microphone and guitar, the absence of harmonies in some stripping it back to reveal a commanding voice that filled the whole room. It was clear from the start of the set there was no need for showmanship or gimmicks from Ruggieri as clear passion and hard work took the lead, his mastered instrument carrying a voice that had the audience listening to every word.
Drinks in hand and heads swaying, the whole crowd soaked up Ruggieri’s gentle musings as his set came to a close. Settled comfortably into their seats, the audience readied themselves as our hat-wearing, waistcoat sporting, foot tappin’, belt bucklin’ headliner returned to the stage, his wife and Ruggieri by his side.
Armed with his guitar and Clare on the tambourine, Dickenson dove straight into his set, opening the show with The Northern Sea. Hat on his hand and booted shoes a-tappin’, Dickenson hooked the crowd from the get-go, the added layers of his music with Ruggieri on a mixer and Clare’s delicate harmonies filling the whole room. Ruggieri settled beside Dickenson on bass for songs like Take it from Me, its deep guitar delving right to the core as Dickenson’s raw voice tingled your bones and prompted excited ‘woo!’s from the audience.
A self professed story-teller, Dickenson smoothly weaves speech with powerful notes, his lyrics with such a relatable depth he could sing all the world’s woes. The whole audience didn’t just sway, but moved as Dickenson played songs such as In the Meantime and Ain’t for the Faint of Heart. Slow, reverberating guitars and tickling harmonies were carried around the room by Dickenson’s voice, a strong foundation around which all aspects of the songs revolve.
Telling the audience about his upcoming EP, Dickenson explained how it is the first in a series of EPs that will pay tribute to the artists from his home state. His immense appreciation for the music scene in Texas past and present is clear, with three or four volumes of the EP expected to just ‘even scratch the surface.’ Luckily for us Belfast folk, not only was the EP ready to buy at the gig, Dickenson performed not one but two songs from the record – freshly released Roy Orbison cover Uptown, as well as Dickenson’s known cover Dublin Blues by the ‘master songwriter’ Guy Clarke.
Tales of Dickenson’s and Ruggieri’s friendship as well as duets between Dickenson and Clare for songs such as Your Heart Belongs to Me brought a new level of intimacy to the evening. The evident close relationship between the three musicians on stage created an extra warmth that filled the room, almost like we were sitting fireside on the evenings they created the music they now performed around the world.
Finishing off his duet with Clare with ‘she’s some pup’, Dickenson went for an innocent sip of water only to be met with a shout of ‘have a pint for fuck sake!’ Now armed with a Guinness after the well-received demand, Dickenson announced ‘we’d like to try something new’ as the three huddled around a wooden box. He explained – ‘Since we are here doing a hometown gig I want to make things intimate, like we are sitting in each other’s laps by the fire, pissed.’ Singing a cover of a duet between Willy Nelson and Ray Charles also from the new EP, the crowd sat completely hooked as the three sang without a microphone.
As the set approached its end, the crowd listened intently as Dickenson was left alone on stage to tell us the story of his Grandfather who passed away just before Christmas. Dickenson told the crowd of how important his Grandfather was to him and the influence he had on his music. At 97 years of age he said how his mind was ‘sharp as a tac’ but his body was failing, yet his Grandfather held on just a little longer to make sure Dickenson’s Grandmother was safe- ‘and I think that’s just about the sweetest thing.’ It was an incredibly special, personal moment we were able to share with our headliner, the whole crowd overcome with emotions as he beautifully brought the set to a close with Seasons Change.
While that was a perfect ending, Dickenson was dedicated to the encore and he returned to the stage with Clare and Ruggieri saying ‘I like how we pretend this isn’t planned.’ Gathering back around the wooden box for ‘one last one around this old guy’, the trio sang us out to Way Past Midnight. It was a night well spent with what felt like our best pals, and it is sure to say the whole crowd is eagerly awaiting our next gathering. Until next time, JD!