Solid States and Loose Ends (2016)
As one of Canada’s most sought after producers, session musicians and guitarists, Steve Dawson spends much of his time helping other songwriters and musicians bring their creative visions to life. As wonderful as these collaborations are, it’s when Dawson hunkers down in his Henhouse Studio to record his own music that he truly shines, and the Juno Award-winning artist has come up with something special this time around. ‘Solid States and Loose Ends’ is a sublime set of new songs that play to all of Dawson’s many musical strengths.
This is the most beautifully considered, composed and performed album of Steve’s career and as the title suggests, it is a record that sums up and gathers together the many musical influences and lyrical themes that he has been exploring for more than two decades now. It’s also the first deeply personal recording Dawson has issued since leaving Vancouver for Nashville a few years back. With its sweeping scope, the expansive sound of ‘Solid States and Loose Ends’ stands in stark contrast to the spare elegance of 2014’s ‘Rattlesnake Cage’, his critically-acclaimed solo acoustic instrumental album. Inspired by the talented musicians he’s met since relocating to Music City, Dawson decided to see what he could cook up if he just ‘got a great band together and played’.
The rock-solid rhythm section of Gary Craig (Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Bruce Cockburn) on drums and John Dymond (Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, K.D. Lang) on bass set the stage for some exciting music to unfold, and having worked with some of Nashville’s finest musicians since moving there, he called on some of these new friends to join in; Mike Bub (Steve Earle, Del McCoury) stepped up to offer some fine doghouse bass, the brilliant Kevin McKendree (Brian Setzer, Delbert McClinton) contributed blistering piano and organ, and Fats Kaplin (Jack White, The Dead Reckoners) swooped in on fiddle, mandolin and viola. The bar was clearly set high, and Dawson certainly rose to the occasion. Whether playing acoustic or electric, slide or pedal steel, every performance on the album showcases the warmth and fluidity of his style. Rarely has the prodigious player coaxed such rich and evocative tones out of his instrument or performed with the creativity and authority that he does here.
Another part of the story of ‘Solid States and Loose Ends’ has to do with how much Dawson has grown as a singer. His delivery has never been as nuanced or unhurried as on these evocative new songs, and when he sings with Keri Latimer (Leaf Rapids) or the sublime McCrary Sisters, it’s hard to imagine ever wanting to listen to anything else.
A naturally curious musician with more than a bit of mad scientist in him, Steve Dawson is constantly experimenting with new instruments, recording equipment and guitar sounds. To create ‘Solid States and Loose Ends’ unique aural palate, he set his collection of small vintage amplifiers on full throttle to create the kind of overdriven sound that can only arise when low-wattage tube gear is pushed to the edge. With stinging slide guitar work reminiscent of 70’s Ry Cooder albums, and the intimacy, spontaneity and warmth one might hear on records produced by Joe Henry or T-Bone Burnett, ‘Solid States and Loose Ends’ is a natural extension of the dark themes and ‘film noir’ overtones explored on 2011’s ‘Nightshade’, Dawson’s last full-band album. While he continues to reference the language of traditional blues and country music, Dawson has developed a rich lyrical voice of his own that is as influenced as much by Mickey Spillane and Otto Preminger as by Robert Johnson or Blind Willie McTell. Standout tracks like ‘Rose’s Blues’, ‘California Saviour,’ and the wrenching ‘Final Words’ are among the most accomplished songs Dawson has ever written, and when you hear ‘On Top of the World’, you’ll swear you’re rediscovering a lost country swing classic from 1935.
But, fans of his edgy, vintage guitar sounds won’t be disappointed; he still loves to get down and dirty on the guitar as he does on Riley Puckett’s classic ‘Monkey On My Back’, or blasting through a greasy rendition of Joe Tex’s ‘You Got What It Takes’. Dawson tackles Gid Tanner And The Skillet Lickers’ ‘The Henhouse Door’ with a captivating acoustic solo slide guitar performance that is sparse yet fluidly funky.
A clear labour of love, it’s easy to hear the blood, sweat and tears that went into creating ‘Solid States and Loose Ends’. Filled with beautiful melodies, memorable lyrics, killer grooves and exceptional playing, the album is sure to have fans both old and new tapping their toes and humming along well after the final track has spun.