Too often in this cruel music business the best musicians are under-recognized and/or underappreciated. Steve Dawson – master guitarist, songwriter, producer, and label head for Canada’s Black Hen Music is a prime example. In addition to his many sideman and producer efforts, Lucky Hand is Dawson’s eighth solo album and his first fully instrumental one since Rattlesnake Cage in 2014. While that effort nodded to John Fahey, Leo Kotte, and Ry Cooder, it was mostly blues. This one has those elements and more. It’s a guitar master class.
The scope of his music here broadens to take on almost a cinematic quality, not unlike sweeping landscape paintings. Recorded live with up to twelve microphones positioned throughout the large room, to capture the guitar and the orchestration which at time numbered eight musicians, the music somehow brings together primitive and modern sounds, with classical touches, and unexpected flairs. It reunites Dawson with his old partner, Jesse Zubot, who creates complementary and adventurous undercurrents that Dawson’s guitar seems to glide or float over. This album marks twenty years since the debut of partners Zubot (violin) and Dawson, but the old magic is still very much intact.
When Dawson backs an artist like Jim Byrnes, it’s mostly his dazzling slide guitar work that gets the attention, but we’ve heard his deft fingerpicking style before in his solo work and especially on Rattlesnake Cage. Both of those styles are very much in play here, flowing seamlessly and effortlessly, conjuring up historical images, Delta blues riffs, nods to Chet Atkins, Mississippi John Hurt, John Fahey and modern recognition of Leo Kottke and Sonny Landreth. This is not Dawson “showing off” his immense chops or command of musicology. Instead, it’s as if all these reference points are pinned up like Post-it notes on the wall for Dawson to select from, building his sequences, taking occasional detours along the way; yet remarkably, stitching it all together coherently.
In preparing for the album, Dawson listened intently to Van Dyke Parks’ music, especially the interactions between Parks’ avant-garde string arrangements and the guitar playing style heard on early recordings with Ry Cooder and Phil Ochs. Dawson subsequently asked his friend, Zubot, to score and arrange the strings for five of Lucky Hand’s ten tracks. Past collaborations of Dawson and Zubot had them composing together, but for these tracks the pair worked separately, with the strings embellishing and reacting to Dawson’s guitar lines. This creates intensity, building crescendos and dynamic shifts beyond what a solo guitar could do. The “orchestra” is a string quartet with two violins, viola, and cello, plus horns and woodwinds, all arranged by Zubot.
Dawson splits his time between his original home in Vancouver and his adopted home of Nashville. This gives him access to stellar musicians like harmonica legend Charlie McCoy with whom he duets on “Bentonia Blues.” Mandolinist John Reischman takes his duet turn on “Little Harpeth.” Dawson, of course, plays a wide range of guitars, mostly six and twelve string acoustics. “Bugscuffle,” however, features his unique tuning on the Weissenborn lap guitar. He uses a National steel for the duet with McCoy. Whether playing solo, in the remarkably compatible duets, or with the creative orchestration, Dawson creates music abounding in imagery. For its breadth and depth, this may be Dawson’s best album yet. No doubt, it’s certainly his most adventurous outing.