Never believe in coincidences, so they say, for I was just about to go searching for what might be on in Tokyo last Friday night when the Bad Monkey (Reuben Raj) messaged me with news that Delaney Davidson was in the same town… I searched for the venue, the Ruby Room, and sure enough there he was, top of a four-gig bill.
So, off I went 8 stops in the metro, into Shibuya, a bustling Tokyo suburb home to the famous Shibuya crossing, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world, and forever guarded by the statue of Hachiko, the dog who waited at the crossing for his master for ten years after his death.
The Ruby Room is located up an almost spiral staircase which leads to a small room and bar, Wine Cellar size, accommodating 50-60 people when packed. $25 at the door, includes a drink ticket, which I promptly lost, lodged into the cover of my phone (where it still resides).
Rosie Lewis-Dunn was already on stage when I get there. Soft, folky sound. English lady supported by Kenji Akuma on percussion. A little bit of Suzanne Vega. Very nice. Find her on Soundcloud.
Next, there’s a big genre leap to a Japanese duo, Rip Van Winkle (what an outstanding name for a Japanese band). Punk rock mingled with punk-folk. Outstanding. Awesome. Loud and proud. Taku on guitar and vocals, plus a drummer, whose name I didn’t get. These guys have toured Europe and are very keen to come to New Zealand. Whammy Bar it should be…
Robert Taira Wilson is up next. I’d met him at the bar. What are you doing here? I’m here to play, he says. Oh, ok, but I’m too old to be embarrassed, and he’s too nice to be offended. But what a pleasant surprise. Avant-folk, along with a well-practised and exquisite hand on the guitar. Richard Thompson would be proud, I tell him. Bert Jansch is where his target lies, so I’m a little off the mark, but his short set includes a beautiful intro to one song based on a Japanese folk song. There’s also a cover from English folk artist Nick Mulvey, along with his own songs from his latest EP, Shine Shine Child. He also has an LP out from 2015, and you can check him out on Spotify. He also has a day job. It’s tough in Tokyo.
Mr Delaney, as the other artists refer, has been hovering in the crowd, which by now is thickening up. He sneaks into the dressing room, a curtained-off cubicle in the middle of the bar, exchanging his street gear for his immaculately dishevelled and crumpled suit, with loosened tie. That “busted” look. Just released in time for the gig.
Fiddling with his gear, getting organised. “Is that him?” asks a punter. “I thought it was the bar manager,” he says, incredulous. (This guy was also in a suit, and well on the way. Software guy, with a mate who was in trouble for not going home early. Three guys in suits, total).
Mixed crowd, young, old, mainly foreigners, and, as I discover as the evening goes on, quite a few Kiwi teachers. Seems to be a good job in Tokyo. And the guy behind the bar, moonlighting from his day job, is also from Christchurch but hadn’t heard of Delaney Davidson before now.
Who is this “Delaney”? they all ask. I stumble out a few platitudes, a New Zealand national treasure, alt-country, dark... etc etc.
But then Delaney takes over. Big, tall on the small stage. Words of welcome. A burst of sound into the little layering box, and a little dance. Odd. Tall guy in a crumpled suit doing a little jig as he layers and loops into a decent rhythm and off he goes, Movin’ On, new song. Audience silent and completely attentive. This is different. Scary. Almost Halloween.
So Long, from 2011’s Bad Luck Man, follows, with Delaney the deliberately dishevelled devil giving us the evil eye.
Any Questions? He asks in his best David Byrne imitation.
What’s your genre? comes back the besuited, besotted software guy…
Haunted blues, says Delaney, leaving me high and dry.
But that’s exactly it, why didn’t I think of that, I cry,
Because he’s the one who should know, that’s why…
A song about everyone’s biggest fan, who might that be? No-one gets it, but it’s his mother, of course, as he launches into So Far Away. The guitar gets a good shaking for the next song, and something in there makes a percussive contribution to the loop as he introduces Dambala, a 1970 song by the Bahamian legend Exuma, about a Haitian spirit. But don’t be afraid, no one is here against their free will... yeah, right.
A song about a dream, as he pulls a black cloak over his face, like a ghoul, a monster man, a zombie and it’s Moon River, the Andy Williams song, segueing into Oh Death, by Ralph Stanley.
The Ruby Room is now packed, and Delaney is feeling the heat on stage, his battered forehead flushed as he unleashes Hellhound on My Trail, the song which must have chased Robert Johnson away from the Crossroads and back to the juke joint. Well, your face might be flushed, but here in Japan the toilets are so good that not only will your broad shoulders save you, you’ll get showered and shampooed to boot.
Johnny Horton’s rockabilly I’m Coming Home is issued along with a special dedication to anyone who likes dancing, but there’s no room. Captures the Johnny Cash distorted chug to a tee, but no piece of paper can I see.
Still a Fool has Delaney covering the Muddy Waters song looking like a manic street preacher. Or maybe a sorcerer. There’ll be a few people having bad dreams tonight. And that’s how it goes. In the Pines, Little Heart (from 2010’s Self Decapitation) and finally Way Down South.
The audience has thinned a little by the end, but it’s still a respectable crowd (now minus the suits). And there’s no doubt they have been entertained. It’s Delaney’s first time in Japan, and the end of a comprehensive European tour, and despite the beginning being compromised by the typhoon (along with the Rugby), it has been a successful introduction.
And I can see why: Delaney is different, abnormal almost, and has carved out a significant little niche and a business model which emulates Ed Sheeran (forgive me Delaney) in that it’s economical and makes a 40-50 people gig viable along with the travel. Bring your band along in a suitcase. And his stage presence is almost as mesmerising as Aldous, and I wonder how much she owes him.
Ironic that to get the best of Delaney, you need to see him up close and dirty, in seedy Tom Waits bars.
I am also struck as I do my research for this review and look for the songs, both how prolific he has been over the years (I have eight albums, and that’s not all of them), and yet he mainly does covers for his new fans, even though he makes them sound like his own. But mainly I reckon that Delaney Davidson is a crafty journeyman who just knows what he’s doing.
What a privilege...
Radio 13 thanks and credits Kyoko Obayashi for all the images featured in this article.
Delaney Davidson's set-list in Tokyo
- Movin’ on
- So Long
- So Far Away
- Moon River/O Death
- Hellhound on my Trail
- I’m Coming Home
- Still a Fool
- In the Pines
- Little Heart
- Way Down South