It generally holds true that you can tell a lot about a band by the songs they choose to cover. So it was Wednesday night as Dawes headlined the 9:30 Club. Their two cover choices: an encore-ending take on the Traveling Wilbury’s “End of the Line,” and an is-this-tongue-in-cheek-or-not? version of Bob Seger’s soft-rock ballad “We’ve Got Tonight,” sung by drummer and backup vocalist Griffin Goldsmith.
And that’s pretty much who Dawes is right now as they tour behind their third disc, Stories Don’t End–rootsy and all-American, sure. All about great songwriting. And maybe a bit safe.
To put it another way, there are really two ways to approach this band. The first way, admittedly more cynical, way goes something like this: Here’s a band out of L.A., who dipped their toes in what’s left of the Laurel Canyon scene, and are proud to sound pretty much like what Laurel Canyon artists sounded like 40 years ago (particularly Jackson Browne, to whom they’ve been compared incessantly). Hence, the surprising number of baby boomers in the audience on Wednesday. So the question becomes: Is this really what a twenty-something band is supposed to be doing?
The second, more charitable, way goes like this: Heres’s a band that, like few others of recent years, embody and carry on a style from one of the most fertile times and places in American pop music. And style be damned, frontman Taylor Goldsmith is one of the top young songwriters working in any genre right now.
Wednesday’s sold-out crowd was clearly in the latter camp. After a very well received set by Shovels and Rope, Dawes took the stage and front-loaded the set with some of their best material–the new disc’s lead single, “From a Window Seat,” and “If I Wanted Someone” from their last, Nothing is Wrong. While Nothing is Wrong continues to grow in stature as the great album it is, the songs on Stories Don’t End don’t quite have the same immediacy. Except “From a Window Seat,” which coasts along on a Leon Russell-esque piano rhythm as Taylor Goldsmith muses over the monotony of air travel. In the live setting, it picked up even more steam, complete with some nifty guitar work from Goldsmith. Not bad for a guy who admits in this month’s Relix that when the band started in 2008, he could “only play chords.”
Things flagged a bit when they dug a bit deeper into the new disc with the surprisingly banal title track and “From a Right Angle,” a rollicking piece of mainstream ’90s pop that sounds like it could have been the theme song for a teen drama on The WB Network.
The back end of the show more that redeemed the set, however, with, some ventures into jam-band territory, led by keyboardist Tay Strathairn’s (son of actor David Strathairn, in case you were wondering) formidable playing, and Goldsmith showing off not only his soaring voice, but his deep reservoir of melodic hooks and stop-you-in-your tracks lyrics. Among them: the just-got-dumped ballad “Million Dollar Bill,” the bouncy “Coming Back to a Man” and the slow-burn alt country of “Peace in the Valley” (“And our actor ends his love song/And all these lovers sit and stare/ If I don’t find peace in the valley/It’s cause there wasn’t any there”).
Which brought things, inevitably, to the heartbreaking “A Little Bit of Everything.” How exactly would these three verses about love, loss and yes, suicide, play on stage?
In a word, spectacularly. Between Goldsmith selling the delivery and the fans parroting almost every word, it was the kind of artist-audience engagement your rarely get during a quiet, plaintive song, except maybe in a folkie coffee shop.
No, Dawes isn’t breaking much new ground. But if they’re using songwriting like this to plow the old ground, I’ll take another helping.