Over the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to the band Dawes. I really didn’t know much about them. Their publicist, an old friend, sent me their debut CD, North Hills, last year, and I was struck by the sound. It was wide open and expansive but the tunes were fairly minimalist and simple, firmly rooted in folk rock, redolent of Neil Young, the Band and the Jayhawks as well as the Replacements and Uncle Tupelo, but not copying anyone.
I listened to North Hills over and over, pulled in by the very first track, “The Western Skyline, ” a song that unfolds with a romantic sweep and makes me long for driving across the high plains of Wyoming. It is my favorite new song in recent memory. I really can’t get enough of it. A pretty good live version is pasted at the bottom of this page.
But as much as I dug the whole collection, I didn’t know much about the band, except that they were a young-ish group from Los Angeles. And I wasn’t driven to find out more, as I normally would be because I was in my book bubble; music I loved was just a means to making Big in China better. I just knew that their songs hit me and stuck with me, and I wanted to listen to them over and over. They had a knack for melody. The songs were full of space but never spacey. The singing was emotional and direct, but on key, with obvious care taken to get it all right without being overly polished. All of this is immensely appealing to me.
The music balanced a lot, but most importantly, youthful energy and a decided maturity and intelligence, in both the lyrics and the minimalist, emotive arrangements.
Now I’m out of my book bubble and I’ve had time to learn more. They come by the youthful energy naturally – the group is anchored by singer/songwriter/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith, who is just 23 now, and his kid brother, drummer Griffin, 20. North Hills has to have been recorded three years ago. Do the math.
Their youth is cause for celebration but not disregard. Gregg Allman wrote “Whipping Post,” “Dreams” and “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” and “Melissa” when he was 21-22. Jackson Browne was about 23 when his first album came out, featuring “Doctor My Eyes” among other masterpieces. I think he was younger when he wrote the immortal “These Days.”
Dawes has a second album out now, Nothing Is Wrong, and it’s a very strong follow-up. I like all 12 songs quite a bit, but none of the tracks have nailed me to the wall quite the way that “Western Skyline” immediately did. “Comeng Back to a Man” and “If I Wanted Someone” may be getting there, the latter hampered only by a piano riff that guest player Benmont Tench keeps recycling.
I am more excited by a young band than I remember being in a long, long time. And I’m obviously not alone. Robbie Robertson and Jackson Browne – two obvious forebears – have recently hired Dawes as a backing band. They hear Dawes’ respect for the past and solid roots in classic California rock, but not a slavish devotion to recreating anything. Music that radiates a joy of life and lack of irony is refreshing. So many songwriters go out of their way to drip with irony. So many singers cover their lack of ability to hit the notes with an off-hand attitude designed to show they’re not really trying.
Taylor Goldsmith is a very strong songwriter with all the attributes to make an excellent solo artist, but I’m glad that he has opted to front a real band instead, because the music has the spark of collaboration, the excitement of songs being worked out and expanded on stage that only comes from a group of equals working things out together.
Two weeks ago, I finally saw the band live – twice. They opened for Alison Kraus and Union Station at the Beacon and delivered an excellent, crisp but far-too-short set, brevity that was made up for in spades two nights later when I attended a private party at the Mercury Lounge. It’s the smallest room they’ve played in a while, no doubt, and it was a treat. The four brief videos below, all shot impromptu on my Iphone from the foot of the stage, capture the vibe and intimacy.
I believe that it won’t be too long before it’s hard to believe I saw these guys at the Mercury. I hope I’m right, because it will indicate Dawes has stayed together, stuck it out and continued to grow. I can’t wait to see where they go – and just to see them again.
“Give Me Love” – from North Hills:
“Coming Back to A Man” from the new Nothing Is Wrong.
And here’s two they did with their friend Johnny Corndog.
And a really nice live version from a couple of years ago of “That Western Skyline”:
two trenchant posts in a row for me: I’m a big fan of the songwriting and performance ethics of Dawes — and a diehard Molly Ivins fan. My twin sister and I wrote the play about her, “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” that is playing in Austin now and comes to L.A. this winter with Kathleen Turner in the title role. Molly would be having a fit over Rick Perry. As she wrote about George W.: “The next time I tell you that someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention!”
Thanks Allison. So happy when the interwebs work and bring interested people I don’t know over here. Stay in touch and keep popping over.