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Johnny come lately
The world according to Dowd
by Mark Anderson

ust because Johnny Dowd doesn't pander to popular taste or pick particularly pleasant topics to write and sing about doesn't mean he's not a man of good humor.

Good humor man: life's other side indeed. Click to visit the Dowd Web site.

Murder, mayhem, stalking, botched suicide, drunken driving and deep depression are among the first-person tools of this oddly gifted artist's trade. The world isn't always a pleasant place.

And while best-selling books, movies, plays and visual arts often explore darker themes, it's rarely the province of popular music.

Dowd's October appearance at the Portland Art Museum, in a room built for hundreds of people, had drawn fewer than two dozen souls half an hour before the set began. Dowd strolled through the cavernous room, wearing a baseball cap while stopping to chat with his modest minions.

So how did he and his band get booked at an upscale room with uptown prices? Dowd rolled his eyes. "I don't know," he said as he surveyed his lack of customers, "but I need some kind of theme for tonight. Maybe we'll do all Christmas songs."

Half an hour later he took the stage. The cap had been removed – hat-hair by design – and his skillful band was cooking up the first of many songs about life's underbelly, a hard-rocking number featuring slicing guitars and Dowd's creaking, cracking drawl.

Life begins at 49: Dowd's 1998 release was his first.

At song's end, an unrelated melody bled through the sound system at moderate volume. The soundman had forgotten to turn off the pre-recorded music!

"Hmm," said Dowd, unfazed by the audience's nervous laughter. "I guess I barely notice because there's always a CD player going on in my head."

The next number included another annoying problem – a malfunctioning rhythm machine added a rude, obnoxious noise throughout the song.

"We're bombing," drummer Brian Wilson muttered as the second song reached its finish.

"No, no," Dowd assured his bandmate, momentarily calming the troops. "It's good to be here at the art museum. The next portion of our show is where I take off my shirt."

Dowd's quirky, arty band also includes angel-voiced keyboardist Kim Sherwood-Caso and eccentric guitarist Justin Asher. Drummer Wilson doubles as foot-pedal bassist.

"Actually, I promised some folks I'd play Christmas songs, and I'm a man of my word," said Dowd, before launching a tortured, sing-along version of "Jingle Bells."

"Jambalaya," a relatively frothy highlight, featured the lilting, detached beauty of Sherwood-Caso's singing butted up against the voice-challenged Dowd.

Thanks, Johnny: A book of poetry was given as a parting gift to all.

But make no mistake: while Johnny Dowd may have a sense of humor, the pictures his music paints can be dead serious.

The show's apex, an extended version of "Hope You Don't Mind," came near the end of the hour-long set. The ballad, which begins as an achingly beautiful love song, reveals itself partway through as an ode to the school-age victim of a singleminded stalker.

"I got your picture in my wallet," croaked Dowd, "I got your picture on my wall. I got your name tattooed on my arm. I hope you don't mind."

Dowd handled the guitar solo, a fully realized, melodic exercise in single-note economy, with stray, harsh chord strokes thrown in at infrequent intervals.

The song ends with the notion that the protagonist's obsession is more than passing fancy. "I'll love you till the end of time, till rivers flow upstream," he sang with rising voice, "my love for you is not a whisper, my love is a scream. I hope you don't mind."

Dowd, well into his 50s, made his first recording at 49 and reportedly runs a trucking company in upstate New York. He clearly enjoys his show-biz gig and is not easily rattled – even in front of an embarrassingly sparse crowd.

Maybe the museum's $18 price of admission was the problem.

Nevertheless, it's easy to imagine Dowd and band rocking enthusiastic bar-bulging crowds at right-sized, right-priced venues. Because while his CDs are compelling bodies of work, the live show adds an edgy dimension of top-notch musicianship, along with Dowd's manic intensity, quirky solos and disarming wit.

Still, he played to a dinky crowd at Portland's smallish Satyricon in January 2000, too. And though more followers eventually showed up, a mere handful was in the room when that night's first song was finished. One person applauded as Dowd strode toward the mic wearing a cockeyed smile.

Stocking stuffer: Sure enough, the new CD contains "Jingle Bells."

"HELLOOOO PORTLAND!" he bellowed, as if addressing 20,000 screaming Rose Garden fans.

Maybe Portland just isn't Johnny Dowd's town. "Thanks for sticking around," he said sheepishly at the completion of the Art Museum show. "Everyone gets a free book of my poetry."

A stagehand handed out about a dozen booklets as Dowd sat on the stage and chatted with a few stragglers.

He downplayed his new album but, sure enough, it contains "Jingle Bells." And it just might be the perfect stocking stuffer for that impossible-to-please person on every Santa's list.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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