There are just two endorsements on Steve Dawson’s web page: from Joe Henry and Bruce Cockburn. Both of these expert musicians have graced these pages over the last couple of years and they have rightly recognized the talents of this multi-Juno-Award winning session musician.
Although he comes from above the border in Canada, Dawson is the sort of guitarist you might ask to compose a soundtrack to a western, as titles like “Old Hickory Breakdown” and “Hollow Tree Gap” testify. His nimble finger-picking and slide work even gets enhanced by Charlie McCoy’s blues harps on a couple of tracks.
One of those is “Bentonia Blues”, which, alongside “Hale Road Revelation”, shows a somewhat Southern and bluesy side to his music.
Dawson occasionally slows it down, as for the ukelele track “Little Harpeth” and parts of album closer “Bugscuffle.”
His technique very much evokes Leo Kottke, and like Cockburn, when listening you wonder whether you are hearing him play one guitar or whether a second has been overdubbed.
What sets this disc apart is the several tracks with a string quartet added. After a good many listens, I am still not sure whether this makes the tracks better or just different.
Sometimes they alternate lead lines in an almost call-and-response manner, and they are more elaborate in “Lonesome Ace.” Otherwise, while Dawson’s style is intricate, the strings work in a more “blocky” way, playing chords behind his picking for emphasis, as in the title track, which also benefits from Sam Davidson’s subtle clarinet.
Dawson thankfully remembers the need for tunes as he showcases his impressive, agile playing.