California may not be synonymous with country music, but Devin Dawson is part of the new wave of stars from the state who’s trying to change that. His debut album Dark Horse, released just over a year ago, showed off his diverse influences, and lead single All On Me reached the Top 10 on the US country charts. Dawson has also been working hard at building a UK fanbase, performing an intimate gig in London last summer and supporting Thomas Rhett at the Hammersmith Apollo in November. This week he’s been back on this side of the pond opening for Dan + Shay on their current UK tour.
Accompanied by his two guitarists Nick and Austin, Dawson arrived on stage dressed in his trademark black outfit and carrying his acoustic guitar. He opened the set with War Paint, a rock-influenced track that showed off the depth and growl in his voice. The song was also packed full of great vivid details, highlighting his ability as a storyteller and his ability to create full, rich characters.
The seven-song set featured a range of songs from Dawson’s debut album, including the plaintive John Mayer-esque Symptoms and the sharp, twangy Placebo which brought out the soulful side of his voice (and saw him attempt to hit some very high notes). He also showcased his songwriting skills throughout, with a good balance between midtempo melodies and downbeat melodies. The classic country-influenced Asking For A Friend was a particularly good example of this, with its clever twist towards the end and a tinge of regret in the lyrics.
One thing which particularly stood out to me during Dawson’s performance was his passion for what he does. He regularly broke off to talk to the audience about writing his songs and his journey in country music so far, and I was very impressed by his openness and honesty. Throughout the set he could also be seen getting lost in the music, closing his eyes as he played his guitar and jamming with his bandmates, which made his performance incredibly enjoyable to watch.
For me the standout song was Secondhand Hurt. Dawson delivered a very heartfelt speech about it beforehand, calling it his ‘favourite song to play over here’ and thanking the UK audience for their support of the track. The bluesy groove was a great contrast to his slow, laid-back vocals and there’s a frankness about the lyrics – which tell the tale of a man going through heartbreak after initiating a breakup – that I found incredibly refreshing. He really brought out the raw emotion of the song and captured the conflict of being the one who does the dumping well, and made it something that stayed with me long after the last notes.
Dawson rounded off his set with the laid-back, summery All On Me, which offered a lighter moment as he encouraged the crowd to sing along before taking a rockier turn towards the end. He then performed Dark Horse, the title track from his album, which he described as his ‘autobiography’. The atmospheric, sparse instrumentation highlighted the passion and conviction in his voice as he sang, whilst the rock influences in his music also came through strongly. He got a huge cheer from the crowd as the song came to an end, before walking off stage holding his guitar aloft.
Overall, there’s no denying Dawson is an incredibly talented lyricist and a very passionate and enthusiastic performer, and he did a good job of keeping the crowd’s energy up ahead of Dan + Shay’s headline set. However, whilst I enjoyed his set, the one letdown for me was his vocals. There was something not quite right about them and he didn’t seem quite as strong as he was in November, which is a shame as he’s a real talent otherwise. That said, he got a good response from the crowd and from the chatter around me afterwards he seemed to have won over plenty of new fans. Here’s hoping he’ll be back in the UK soon and get the chance to show everyone exactly what he can do.
Set list: 1. War Paint 2. Placebo 3. Symptoms 4. Asking For A Friend 5. Secondhand Hurt 6. All On Me 7. Dark Horse Performance date: 24th January 2019