We all know that guy. He is the coolest in the room. He knows everyone. He is good at everything he does. He looks fresh. Life just comes easy to him, he basks in it, and in the warmth of his admirers’ glow.
We hate that guy, mostly because he has worked so damned hard to become that guy. There is nothing authentic about him.
Steve Dawson, I suspect, has never been that guy.
Oh, without doubt I suspect Steve Dawson is not only the coolest guy in most every room he has ever spent time, he also appears to be great at everything he attempts. But Dawson has worked hard not to be that superficial guy, but to be the genuine article—a musician and songwriter of superior ability, an Americana roots master who has a genuine appreciation for the sounds and musicians who came before him, and a burning desire to create music that elevates those who inspired him by interpreting the music in new and creative ways.
Steve Dawson doesn’t need to work at being cool.
He just is.
The British Columbia-native has released eight solo albums, three more with Zubot & Dawson, has produced even more for others, and has contributed to as many as Jerry Douglas likely had at a similar point in his career. Well, maybe not that many, but it suggests that those who know, know.
For me, Dawson has been associated with some of my favourite artists going back twenty-plus years: Bob Kemmis, Jenny Whiteley, John Wort Hannam, Kim Beggs, Shuyler Jansen, Linda McRae…folks you make my kind of roots music. More recently, he has played with Birds of Chicago, appeared on Alison Russell’s magnificent Outside Child of last year, and has worked with additional people I highly admire like Kat Danser and Matt Patershuk.
And his own albums? Stellar, each and every one no matter the soundscape he has chosen to explore. Put on any of his previous recordings, and you are transported to a place of musical innovation and perfection, especially with his most recent Lucky Hand, Solid States & Loose Ends (still love that album’s cover art), and Rattlesnake Cage where he has truly defined himself as a master, coalescing his vision of contemporary roots music.
His ninth album Gone, Long Gone is just out and while I am reviewing it only from a download, I still feel the textures and interplay contained on the album as strongly as I would if it were playing on my old Sanyo turntable, or blasting out of my fairly cobbled-together stereo system that features the last functioning five-disc player known to humankind. [My review copy of the CD package was collected from the mailbox hours after posting the review. It is as impressive as the music, with a design by John Rummen that is classic, reminiscent of 60s Folkways releases.]
What’s different this time out? Dawson co-wrote seven of the ten songs with northern Alberta’s Matt Patershuk, a formidable talent whose albums Dawson has produced and contributed to as a musician. This new writing partnership points to a sense of collaboration from the gestation of the recording, and augments the overall complexity of the album.
Not being privy to the details, I suspect Patershuk’s storytelling talents greatly impacted the quality of narrative across these songs. There is one number mid-set, “6 Skeletons in a Car,” that reveals this more strongly than elsewhere:
Tiny yellow headlights get swallowed by the night
It’s cold and the dark and the branches chase them out of spite
The road goes on forever, and the party never ends
Wear your past like a shadow, but you can’t outrun your sins
Borrowing from Robert Earl Keen, the pair establish a formidable, literary tension over a minimalist country-blues rhythm. With Alison Russell (who appears on four songs, each elevated by her presence) and Kari Latimer harmonizing and a pair of drummers (Gary Craig and Jay Bellerose) providing a pulsating, foreboding rhythm with upright bassist Jeremy Holmes, something close to Americana perfection is achieved; for four minutes, the listener experiences a troubling, undefined darkness of song.
The other songs are just as masterfully constructed. Whether imagining a conversation with 1920’s Hawaiian guitar master King Bennie Nawahi (“King Bennie Had His Shit Together,”) exploring the ominous (“Bad Omen,” with Kevin McKendree’s organ delivering a bit of Muscle Shoals to the session,) or considering the past (“Time Has Made A Fool Out of Me”) with his lively Silvertone in-hand and Russell again harmonizing, Dawson provides numerous opportunities for us to consider perspectives and sounds not frequently encountered. The funky, horn-laden “Dimes” kicks off the album while the title track is based in folkier, blues traditions; while there is plenty of competition, this sparser number may prove to be the enduring favourite.
A pair of instrumentals, including the Hawaiian-guitar based “Kulaniapia Waltz” and the solo “Cicada Sanctuary” offer additional listening pleasures, while a smoking and unique cover of the Faces “Ooh La La” allows Dawson and his band to turn out a stunning jam of an old favourite from the two Ronnies, Lane and Wood.
Long based in Nashville, Steve Dawson is sorely missed in western Canada although his presence continues to be felt through the artists with whom he chooses to work. Still, we miss the opportunity to hear him live as frequently as we did many years ago—and regret the times we didn’t make the effort.
With an album like Gone, Long Gone, one that has a close, personal, and intimate atmosphere, one feels the presence of excellent musicians, personable singers, and companionable collaborators no matter where the listening may occur.
And this is just the first of three albums coming in 2022 from Steve Dawson.