Vancouver will never rival Nashville in terms of sheer density of musicians per square kilometre, but it is—as Steve Earle once famously said of the capital of country music—a guitar town. Our city is home to a variety of six-string specialists, some acclaimed and others obscure, and of the former the most well-rounded might well be Steve Dawson.
Dawson is a serious student of his instrument, or perhaps we should say instruments: on his new CD, Waiting for the Lights to Come Up, he plays electric guitar, acoustic guitar, baritone guitar, pedal-steel guitar, acoustic and electric lap-steel guitar, and mandotar. He also adds pump organ, Mellotron, glockenspiel, ukulele, and “fun machine”; produced the CD himself; and sings on nine of its 12 tracks.
In short, he’s a roots-music renaissance man. But don’t look to Waiting for a full picture of his abilities. For that, we’ll have to factor in his next record, Telescope, which was recorded at the same time as Waiting but won’t be released until later this year. Together, they’ll get us close: the first release shows off Dawson the singer, songwriter, and virtuoso, while the second is devoted to his latest passion, moody pedal-steel instrumentals inspired by the wide-screen Americana of artists like Bill Frisell and Daniel Lanois.
“I just had this idea of trying to do a couple of projects at the same time,” Dawson explains, calling from Red Deer, Alberta, where he’s filling another of his favourite roles: sideman to blues singer Jim Byrnes. “I had a bunch of songs I was working on, which to me felt like a continuation of my last record [We Belong to the Gold Coast]. And then I wanted to record some pedal-steel instrumental stuff that I’d been working on as well. So I just assembled this band, and got them [the two albums] both down at the same time.”
From Dawson’s perspective as a producer and studio owner, this probably made logistical as well as artistic sense, and it also helped in putting together the aforementioned band. In addition to long-time colleagues Chris Gestrin on keyboards and Keith Lowe on bass, he drew on the talents of San Francisco drummer Scott Amendola, the percussive powerhouse behind jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux and the improv-oriented Nels Cline Singers, among many others.
Dawson met Amendola while work-ing on Portland, Oregon, songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps’s Slingshot Professionals, and immediately realized he’d found a kindred spirit. “He’s got a similar kind of attitude, I guess, where he ends up playing a lot of other people’s music but also writes music and does his own thing,” the guitarist explains. “It ends up taking a back seat, and I think that’s ultimately why he left Madeleine Peyroux’s band—he wanted to get into his own stuff. I can really relate to that.”
Amendola’s ability to excel in a variety of different styles rivals Dawson’s own, and that’s amply reflected in Waiting, which runs from ’30s jazz with a Hawaiian punch (“Hard to Get Gertie”) to the twisted contemporary songwriting of Los Angeles fixture Jon Brion’s “Ruin My Day”. And even though Dawson says that his new disc is a continuation of its predecessor, it includes a few new wrinkles—including the gospel-style themes and harmonies that emerge on “Fire Somewhere” and “Somebody’s Got to Help You”.
Although Dawson cautions that he’s “a very nonreligious person”, it seems that playing with African-American gospel act the Sojourners—and producing their well-received House of Refuge CD—has made its mark on his own output. “There’s something about gospel that’s more interesting than straight blues, sometimes,” he notes. “It’s got that bluesy quality, plus a lot more energy. And those guys are just so deeply rooted in authentic gospel music. I’ve learned a lot of stuff just from listening to those guys talk about growing up in the States.”
Dawson adds that he’s the kind of musician who thinks it’s a good thing to be open to outside influences—including Les Paul, the original genius of the electric guitar, who inspired the space-age-bachelor-pad take on “Swinging in a Hammock” that serves as Waiting’s coda.
“I guess it all kind of seeps in there somehow,” he says. But what’s important is that it seeps out too—in music that’s increasingly personal and refined.
Steve Dawson and his band host a CD–release party for Waiting for the Lights to Come Up at St. James Hall on Friday (February 8).