march 2009

Putting Truth Back Under The Knife

Dawes Comes Out Of The Blue, and Goes Straight For the Heart

By David McGee

Dawes (from left): Taylor Goldsmith, Griffin Goldsmith, Tay Strathairn, Wylie Gelber: a full-on rock 'n' roll juggernaut of classic dimensions and potentially legendary proportions

Having a largely unknown band come onstage and blow you away is one thing; hearing in this band a sound for the ages, the potential to be a major voice in its generation, is about as rare as the sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Arkansas Delta.

In one fell swoop, opening for Delta Spirit at the Bowery Ballroom in New York on February 21, the Los Angeles-based, unsigned quartet known as Dawes did exactly that, and did it again the next night in a smaller venue before a smaller, but still packed, house at Arlene's Grocery (where, during a rafters-shaking version of the monumental, Band-like anthem, "When My Time Comes," several fans up front were waving upraised arms to and fro, as if they were having a religious experience). Looking back, it's still hard to believe what unfolded in those two performances. On the Bowery Ballroom's website, Dawes didn't even merit a descriptive paragraph about its music, only the band name, linked to a rather sparse MySpace site, where there's just enough music to make one sit up and take notice of a gifted artist at work, and of what sounds like a mellow, folk-rock band, all languid rhythms and profound ruminations. Wrong.

Oh, they're profound, and there's some folk-rock in the repertoire, but in concert they are a full-on rock 'n' roll juggernaut of classic dimensions and potentially legendary proportions. On its lone, self-released, North Hills album, pressed in February and available only at the band's shows and on iTunes, you can hear some of Dawes's sonic power, but the overall effect is one of subdued introspection, more akin to The Band and early Crosby, Stills & Nash; in concert, The Band aesthetic and the CS&N harmonies are fully present and accounted for, but the muscle in the music springs from the likes of Springsteen, Fogerty, Dylan, Neil Young and some southern soul influences centered on the twin shrines of Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith's songs are packed with telling and unsparing details of love gone cataclysmically wrong, rife with literary allusion (the songs on North Hills were written while Taylor admits to being under the influence of "F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and guys like that, with a little bit of John Steinbeck on some of the later songs on the record.") and a large measure of melancholy, wistfulness and bitterness; they're also sometimes intentionally literary and wordy in striving for transcendence—not unlike, oh, the young Paul Simon's songs—but also compelling, impossible to dismiss, and demanding attention be paid (hello, Paul). In fact, if Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit is his generation's John Lennon, and he may be, then Dawes's lead singer/lead guitarist/songwriter Taylor Goldsmith may well be its Paul Simon. But where Delta Spirit looks out at the brute world and raises a clarion call against injustice and apathy, Dawes looks to an inner geography, to the holiness of the heart's affections. Delta Spirit has a Rubber Soul, maybe even a White Album, in it; Dawes has a Bookends, and maybe a Graceland, looming.

Taylor Goldsmith: 'I've always written songs, I've always wanted to be a musician, but I didn't want to start treating the material so preciously. Every time I come across artists who take themselves too seriously, it tends to be a bad experience."

Dawes goes about its art with a bass player, Wylie Gelber, who plays in a florid, melodic style equally beholden to Stax/Volt and Paul McCartney; a stupefyingly accomplished 18-year-old powerhouse drummer, Griffin Goldsmith, Taylor's brother, who possesses the subtlety, the groove-sense and the stamina of Levon Helm; and a keyboard player, Tay Strathairn, whose majestic, nuanced, gospel/soul instrumental voice is straight out of the Spooner Oldham textbook. And then there's Taylor, the frontman. Of average height and build, with a stubbly growth on the face, dark hair suitably and musicianly mussed, with intense, dark eyes and open features, he hunches over his Telecaster as he crafts riveting, intensely emotional, howling solos reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's first great lead guitar showcase, Darkness On the Edge of Town, and specifically the song "Somewhere In the Night" off that album. Darkness seems to be Taylor's sole Springsteen influence-one album, and one song from the album (indeed, in conversation, Taylor is rapturous about Darkness: "That's the one. That's my favorite Bruce album. He played all the lead on that one.") When he steps to the mic to sing, he leans in close but never lets his gaze stray from the audience. He'll gesture to emphasize a point in the story, but his posture remains coiled, his expression dauntless, as if there's so much aching to get out that it's doubling him over; but rather than being vanquished by his emotions, he's rearing up to let them all burst loose, his veiled melancholy rushing out in a torrent of effusive, accusatory poetry and, emanating from the Tele, barbaric yawps.

A band with the intensity, commitment and conviction of Dawes is a natural fit on the Delta Spirit tour, Unsurprisingly, Matt Vasquez has become one of Dawes's staunchest supporters. "There's a good crew of musicians in Los Angeles these days that are very much from that Gram Parsons niche of California country music," Vasquez opines. "Keeping it very rock and roll. There's some that overdo it and start dressing like Neil Young a little bit too much. You know, it's kinda tough to dodge when you live there, because fashion goes along with your musical taste. Dawes is pretty good about not letting that happen to them. They're about the music and the lyrics."

"So if you want to get to know me/follow my smile down into its curves/All these lines are born in sorrows and pleasures/and every man ends up with the face that he deserves" —from "When You Call My Name," by Taylor Goldsmith

There's not a whole lot of history to deal with when it comes to Dawes. All the members are from Los Angeles, save keyboardist Strathairn, who moved to L.A. from Woodstock, NY (how fitting, for he not only channels Spooner Oldham, but he's got a bit of Garth Hudson going for him too). For four years Taylor and bassist Gelber were in Simon Dawes, represented on record by the well received, Tony Berg-produced Carnivore in 2006, and, prior to that, 2005's What No One Hears, and toured with, among others, Maroon 5. "Simon" was guitarist Blake Mills, whom Taylor calls "the best musician I've ever met." (YouTube offers plenty of concert footage of Simon Dawes, and hence Blake Mills, for the curious.) Dawes is the name of the Goldsmith brothers' grandfather. When Mills decided to pursue other opportunities, Simon Dawes was history, but Taylor and Gelber, joined by Griffin and, as of a year or so ago, Strathairn, then newly relocated to Los Angeles, banded together as Dawes. The current tour as the opening act for Delta Spirit is the band's first national road work, but they played all over the L.A. area while Griffin was finishing high school. (For the record, Taylor attended Pepperdine University for a year and a half—"It wasn't for me, but I wasn't really open-minded at that point at all towards anything. Now I look back and am upset for not taking advantage of that whole experience."—and Strathairn studied music at the New School in New York City for four years; Gelber left high school to work full time with Dawes.) North Hills was cut analog with producer Jonathan Wilson, and pressed just in time for the Delta Spirit tour.

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The only extant Dawes footage: "That Western Skyline" (lousy video quality, great song)  

"Jonathan Wilson is an amazing guitar player, and he actually played some of the guitar on our record," Taylor says. "He played with a lot of different artists, including Elvis Costello, and he was in a band called Muscadine, which is amazing. He comes from North Carolina and he moved out to L.A. He lives up in Laurel Canyon, and he's a producer. His whole rig up there, his whole producing situation, is all analog. We recorded it all to tape; there wasn't even a computer involved. It was all like the way it used to be done. For the most part everything was recorded live. We did the drums, bass and lead vocal and acoustic guitar and piano, all live, then we would overdub organ or another guitar or the background vocals. But for the most part, just about every track was recorded live. And because it was analog, we didn't really have the opportunity to go back and correct anything or smooth anything out. At first, it was something I was a little bit nervous about. My only experience with recording had been with digital stuff, and everything is so available. So I was like, Maybe we should clean this up. But I'm really glad we didn't do that, because it sounds a little more real, and doesn't sound too precious, which I think is good for the songs."

It's also quieter than the band is on stage, an observation Taylor acknowledges as accurate and, on Dawes's part, intentional. "Because listening to records like Harvest, Neil Young records, Band records, and then listening to their live recordings, it's always two different experiences. And we really respond to that. When you listen to 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,' it's pretty tame and really allows the song to get across, and it's not concerned with a live energy at all, which you don't need because you're just listening to the record. Then you listen to that song on any of his live records and it's so loud. And seeing him live, which we've been lucky enough to do, it allows the live show to be that much more fulfilling."

What's also more fulfilling, or more fully appreciated, in encountering Dawes live is Taylor's dynamic lead guitar work. On the concert stage the band is all-electric, whereas on disc a pronounced acoustic backdrop does its intended job of focusing a listener's attention on the storytellin absent the raw scream of the electric quartet. There's enough there to tantalize, without giving much away about experiencing the band up close and personal. Any talk of how striking his guitar playing is, though, elicits a hearty laugh from Taylor. He's fairly new at it, you see, because in Simon Dawes he stood well out of the spotlight while Blake Mills wowed the crowd with six-string pyrotechnics. "I would just kind of strum along and sing," he says sheepishly, failing to add that at times he played a pretty fair keyboard. When Simon Dawes morphed in Dawes, Taylor was confronted with the necessity of crafting an instrumental voice suitable to the material he had penned. It was tough sledding at first. "There were these songs that called for the guitar to step out more than I was capable of, so we spent a large part of the beginning of our Dawes shows with the lead guitar being pretty sub-par. I was trying to keep up with Griffin, Wylie and Tay, and I didn't have much experience doing it. So me really fucking up bad only three or four times a night was looked at as a good thing. But after playing every single night with Delta Spirit and feeling a little more confident about my playing, it's really cool to hear someone compliment me, because I never considered myself a guitar player.

"Now," he adds with typical understatement, and a touch of dry humor, "I'm beginning to consider it."

Tay Straithairn (left) and Tylor Goldsmith at work on stage: "We spent a large part of the beginning of our Dawes shows with the lead guitar being pretty sub-par," according to Taylor. "I was trying to keep up with Griffin, Wylie and Tay, and I didn't have much experience doing it. So me really fucking up bad only three or four times a night was looked at as a good thing.

About those songs... This is where it gets interesting. "Give Me Time," soft and reverent, like a hymn, pleading gently for patience and understanding, with harmonies as exquisite as Crosby, Stills & Nash's. The epic album opener, "That Western Skyline," a song that moves from dreamy to angry to melancholic in recounting a love affair and a spiritual journey from Alabama to California, one rife with hints of betrayal and remorse and longing. It takes the form of a one-way conversation between the narrator (Taylor) and a fictional character named Lou, whose only role is to listen (and have his named rhyme with "true"). Laconic and bittersweet, with a bit of the feel of "The Weight," and further enhanced atmospherically by Strathairn's funereal organ hum, the song wistfully recounts a courtship between the narrator and an Alabama preacher's daughter he wooed ("I did not feel welcome," he sings, and he doesn't mean by the girl). Visiting Birmingham, "where the aching soil is so much richer," he tries to walk the walk: "I watch her father preach on Sundays/I know the hymnals all by heart"—and then the critical revelation: "But oh, Luke, no my dreams did not come true/No, they only came apart," followed by a somber, agonizing chorus of voices rising up and singing a plaintive trifecta of "oh, oh, oh, oh, oh," aching with the narrator's anguish.

It's a true story of romantic misadventure turned into mesmerizing art. "The song's about this girl who is real, and is and was a part of my life," Taylor explains. "She lives out in Alabama. I met her out there, took a liking to her, kept in touch with her. We didn't really know each other that well because we lived so far apart, because I live in Los Angeles. She came out to L.A. for her work and we started hanging out more. Coming from a small town, with a father who really is a preacher, growing up in that kind of environment, she didn't really respond well to Los Angeles. The city, the people and the pretense all turned her off. She grouped the whole judgment up into one thing, and her feeling towards me was changed based on her impression of how she felt about Los Angeles. So the song's about how where you're from really deciding what kind of person you grow up as, and despite your priorities in your life, the things you consider important, what you want those to be sometimes isn't even up to you. It's up to where you come from."

"That Western Skyline" sets the stage for everything to come. A signature song, "Love Is All I Am," gentle and bitter all at once, finds Taylor spitting out his contempt for someone who values the gestures of love more than the substance of its daily commitment: "Love is not excitement/it's not kissing or holding hands/I'm not some assignment/No, love is all I am," he cries in a voice wounded and seething. The Band-ish "When You Call My Name," led by Taylor's circular, Robbie Robertson-style Tele filigrees and his nasally, soulful vocal as the song marches forward, breaking into a soaring chorus after Taylor sings softly, "If you wanna get to know me/follow my smile into its curves/All these lines are born in sorrows and pleasures/And every man ends up with the face that he deserves."

On an album with hardly any weak moments, especially in the writing, the showcase piece is the monument titled "When My Time Comes." From a distance we hear another rolling thunder guitar lick, from afar but gathering strength as it surges in intensity until it crests and takes the band with it, propelling the whole enterprise ruthlessly forward with pummeling force, Taylor declaiming the lyrics with fierce resolve, as he questions the validity of his own art, indeed his own existence: "So I pointed my fingers and shouted a few quotes I knew/as if something that's written should be taken as true/but every path I had taken and conclusion I drew/would put truth back under the knife/and now the only piece of advice that continues to help/is anyone that's making anything new only breaks something else." Each chorus is preceded by a stop-time figure, barely enough of a pause to catch your breath, and then the most magnificent chorus explodes in a volley of drums, burbling bass, gospel organ, a driving guitar riff, and all four voices rising in exalted harmony, singing, " time comes... oh-oooohhh-ooohhh-oh/when my time comes/oh-oooohhhh-ooohhh." The buoyant, close harmonized chorus—the moment in the song when personal aspiration meets spiritual conviction, and a hope rises in the anticipated hallelujah those "ooohhh"s signify—suggests an ecstatic epiphany, triumphant and transcendent all at once.

"Now it seems the unraveling has started too soon/Now I'm sleeping in hallways and drinking perfume/And I'm speaking to mirrors and I'm howling at moons/While the worse and the worse that it gets/you can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks/yes, you can stare into the abyss, but it's staring right back"—"When My Time Comes"

"When My Time Comes" is a textbook example of the literary influence in Taylor's songwriting process. The song was inspired by his reading of Rainier Marie Rilke's Letters To a Young Poet and "other serious writers who are constantly reminding you that without doing so you wouldn't be able to live. I've always written songs, I've always wanted to be a musician but at the same time I didn't like looking at it that way. I didn't want to start treating the material so preciously. Every time I come across artists who tend to take themselves too seriously, it tends to be a bad experience. Being way too serious and proud are qualities I never want to be accused of. That song was me trying to come to terms with my approach—you know, the artist's dilemma. Whether or not it's worth it. But dealing with the doubt, not feeling confident enough, but at the same time mulling over whether it's good for me or doing me a disservice. When is it useful and when is it ego driven?"

If his songs are any indication, at the tender age of 23 Taylor seems to have really been put through the wringer, at least when it comes to love. Intimate and personal as they are, the lyrics find Taylor scourging himself as unrepentantly as he does his fickle partners. (In one of the many memorable lyrics in "When My Time Comes," he's practically come unhinged, bellowing, "Now it seems the unraveling has started too soon/Now I'm sleeping in hallways and drinking perfume/And I'm speaking to mirrors and I'm howling at moons.") Taylor insists personal experience is his only reference at the moment, although he notes that there are a couple of moments on North Hills when he considers more general philosophical dilemmas. He mentions Dylan's "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate" as "songs that have a storytelling quality to them, but you know they weren't experienced by the writer." His problem, he avers, is that "for some reason I don't know if I'm really capable yet of being able to tap into other peoples' possible experiences. I don't know. In my own opinion I don't feel I've developed enough as a writer to be able to really understand what someone else's emotions would be going through something. That being the case, every song in the band ends up being based entirely on personal experience. Any time I've tried to get out of that it's felt dishonest. Even though I really think it would be good for the music, would give the material a broader scope, I still don't know if I'm quite there. So all of it tends to be based on personal experience, and most times there's a person attached, be it a girl if it's a song of longing, or whatever. Sometimes not, like 'Peace In the Valley' has to do with living in Los Angeles and trying to wrap my head around what that means to me, and a song like 'Take Me Out Of the City' is more concrete and decided, more of a decision than a thought."

From the Bowery stage Taylor told the crowd that the members of Dawes had given up their apartments and all worldly possessions to go on tour with Delta Spirit, in announcing the availability of CDs for sale downstairs. The subtext of that appeal, though, goes to the heart of this chapter in Dawes's brief history: just as the band gives up everything on stage for its audience, so has it done so offstage, in its commitment to the dream. "We're all very lucky guys with loving families and we're not going to be left out in the cold or anything," he explains. "But there came a point where we were either going to devote everything to do this and put all our eggs in one basket, or we were never really going to take it that seriously or take it that far. So this tour I feel like is the biggest example of us making that decision."

Fittingly, it was Delta Spirit's Matt Vasquez who offered Taylor the unalloyed truth he and his mates have embraced in their push forward.

Recalls Taylor: "Recently, in Cambridge, Matt took me aside. He'd had some drinks and was in a particularly sentimental mood, I guess. He let me know that it was important that we reminded ourselves daily that we're giving everything up for this, and this has to be our main priority, and if we don't do that we're really doing ourselves a disservice. He said, 'This has to be more important to you than anything else, any other person.' The way he put it, which was very funny and very Matt Vasquez of him, was, 'You know, a member of your family gets sick, you gotta take care of 'em; you gotta do that. If you have a baby, you have to take care of it. Otherwise, nothing else comes before this.'"

"If all my lovers sing the big words/and all my brothers keep them small/Then I got lost in the difference/between their whisper and the echo of their call/so I am headed for the ocean/to let the sea smoke guide me in/I'll give up my belongings and questions/they only ever taught me to begin/So I will not turn around, as I step up to the train/But I'll hear it when you call my name/And I will not be the sound/of your roof under the rain/but I'll hear it when you call my name" —"When You Call My Name"

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