Anna Coogan presents The Blood of a Poet + Johnny Dowd and Melle De Boer – Live At TAPE

Secret Meeting score: 80

by Phil Scarisbrick

TAPE is community arts project based in Old Colwyn, Colwyn Bay. It is a fantastic initiative to help creative local people in music and film get their projects made. Tonight though, their venue was the location for an intriguing concert, quite unlike anything I’d experienced before. For starters, we would be viewing tonight’s acts from the comfort of red leather sofas. There was no bar selling over-priced warm lager and no security to rub you down on entry. We took our seats at 7pm for the first act.

Anne Coogan is an American singer-songwriter with several studio albums under her belt. Here though, she is performing a soundtrack she composed for Jean Cocteau’s 1930 debut film, Le sang d’un Poete (The Blood of a Poet). Armed with a Fender Stratocaster, a pair of Fender amps, a tambourine and an array of guitar effects pedals, she provided the atmosphere for this avant-garde masterpiece. With a powerful sense of dread, soaring yet jarring melodies and hints of French nursery rhyme Frere Jacques, Coogan was able to create an emotional backbone to Cocteau’s stunning black and white visuals. It was a truly captivating experience.

Following a short break, the cinema screen was put away and Dutch singer/songwriter Melle De Boer took to the stage. Backed by multi-instrumentalist Suzanne Ypma, he sat cross-legged on the floor and sang his opening number, evoking Harvest-era Neil Young with his fragile vocal delivery. Now standing, the duo moved through tracks from De Boer’s latest album Temporary Bandage. This included Roof Above My Head – an Eels-tinged, synth –led tune – and Crow, a song De Boer said was about “how I killed my mother”. The music is pure Americana, with touches of Woody Guthrie and Son House, and more recently Alabama Shakes. The two voices meld together in a way that evokes Johnny Cash and June Carter to make this a thoroughly enjoyable set.

Final song Hold On builds to a huge crescendo and is the nearest thing to a ‘sing-a-long’ moment. Just before the song’s climax, the pair are joined by Johnny Dowd, Anne Coogan and a guitarist named Mike. They then took over the stage seamlessly as Melle and Suzanne left.

Dowd set the tone by announcing “We’re going to play some classic American tunes because, well fuck it, I love America. I know we’ve got our problems but who doesn’t?” before ripping into a powerful cover of blues standard, St. James Infirmary, with Coogan taking the initial lead vocals. They followed this up with a track that they announced they’d written in their hotel room before the gig entitled I Ate Colwyn Bay for Lunch. Sounding like Pete Seeger being backed by the White Stripes on a North Walian jaunt, with its chorus proclaiming – ‘I love the bright lights of Colwyn Bay/I want to be a star like Conway Twitty’ – a nod to the county of Conwy in which Colwyn Bay is situated.

Though much of the set was made up of covers, Dowd confidently owned them through his performance. His vocal delivery is sharp and every syllable sounds like a proclamation. I mentioned Pete Seeger earlier and there is a definite cross over in delivery style, but Dowd sounds like nobody but himself. I have read comparisons to Tom Waits, particularly the dark humour which tinges both his music and between-song chat, but his guitar work is pure Marc Ribot (Waits’ collaborator from 1985’s Rain Dogs right through to 2011’s Bad As Me). With its jarring, angular sounds, it almost ignores everything that is going on around it and occupies a space all of its own. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does to great effect.

The final song of their main set was Charlie Chaplin’s Smile. Coogan takes the opening verse, singing beautifully over sparse backing before kicking in and Dowd taking the lead sounding every bit as fun and raucous as Sid Vicious’ version of My Way. Melle and Suzanne then came back on for a final run through more American classics before closing on The Cuckoo. This final section was like an old-style musical review, basically a big jam with great musicians having great fun.

Though this music was tinged with elements of France, The Netherlands and Britain, it was pure Americana. Going into the event with no preconceptions other than a few Johnny Dowd songs I’d heard, I was mightily impressed with all that was on offer. If any or all of these acts are in a town near you, go and enjoy some fine musicians, making Americana great again.