Vancouver Courier - Telescope
In his Vancouver recording studio known as the Henhouse, Steve Dawson sits down behind an instrument that's played with the hands, knees and feet. It's a pedal steel guitar, and as Dawson confidently finds his way around the instrument's strings, levers and pedals, its unmistakable high lonesome wail fills the room.
That striking pedal steel sound reverberates throughout Telescope, a luminous instrumental album Dawson has just released. He assembled an ace band and recorded the basic tracks for Telescope, plus another entire album (Waiting For The Lights To Come Up), in just five days. But while the recording was quick, Dawson's education on the pedal steel was months in the making.
Dawson has established himself as one of Canada's most engaging roots musicians, playing all manner of guitars such as acoustic, electric, lap steel and Dobro, along with numerous other instruments. Pedal steel, however, wasn't in his toolkit. "I was very intimidated by it for a lot of years, and that's why I never really learned it," Dawson says. "I knew that I would need to devote a certain amount of time to do that, and I wasn't able to take time away from doing gigs and producing records."
Steve Dawson's new instrumental album, Telescope, showcases the multi-talented producer and musician's prowess on pedal steel guitar.
That changed when Dawson received a grant in 2005 from the Canada Council for the Arts to study with Greg Leisz, one of the best modern pedal steel players. Leisz has worked with artists ranging from Bill Frisell to the Smashing Pumpkins. In Los Angeles, Dawson took lessons from Leisz, who helped decode the instrument's mysteries. Dawson recorded the sessions, and later painstakingly transcribed Leisz's playing to delve deeper.
The pedal steel has long been associated with country music, and Dawson enjoys listening to master pedal steel players like the late country rock pioneer Sneaky Pete Kleinow. But Dawson isn't a fan of slick contemporary country where the instrument is often heard. "I've always loved the pedal steel itself, but I would say that well over half the time that I hear it, I don't really like the music that it's on."
A bigger influence than country has been atmospheric music by artists like Daniel Lanois, who played lush pedal steel on the instrumental album Belladonna.
On Telescope, the musicians applied a broad stylistic palette to Dawson's songs. The group--Dawson on pedal steel and various string instruments, San Francisco drummer Scott Amendola, Seattle bassist Keith Lowe and Vancouver's Chris Gestrin on vintage keyboards--segues from stirring Americana to driving rock and quirky jazz. The same players, except for Amendola, will perform music from Telescope Nov. 8 at St. James Community Hall. (Geoff Hicks will play drums.)
It will be Dawson's second CD release show at St. James this year; the other one marked the release of Waiting For The Lights To Come Up, which focuses on his singer/songwriter side. Both albums are on Black Hen Music, the label Dawson launched in 1995.
Black Hen is in the middle of another project: recording a tribute album to the Mississippi Sheiks, an influential 1930s country blues group. The album will feature interpretations of Sheiks songs by Bruce Cockburn, Madeleine Peyroux, the North Mississippi Allstars and other prominent artists. Ry Cooder may even do a tune for the album to be released next year.
Despite the upcoming tribute album, Dawson's own music, producing musicians like Jim Byrnes and working as a sideman, the 36-year-old doesn't feel he has a balanced career just yet. "I don't think it's very balanced. In a perfect world it would be a third of playing my own songs, a third of producing records for people, and a third being a sideman. But it will never really work out that way. I have to work a lot to make a living."
Thankfully, Dawson was able to step back and learn the pedal steel. Dawson's shimmering pedal steel melodies and harmonies on Telescope confirm he's learned the instrument well.
"I wanted to have something that said I went from not being able to play this instrument to being at this point. So I feel like I accomplished that. It's a cool record, and I'm really happy with the way it sounds, but I don't think too much about stuff I've done already. I'm always going to want to push ahead."
- Chris Wong