Canada has produced scores of righteous musical acts over the years, and it certainly helps that artists can get help from their government through various agencies and that MAPL helps ensure that Canadian music is more widely accessible to the public. It is not a perfect system, but it certainly can help artists get a toehold in the local market, and use it as a springboard to further international success.
One product of this Canadian scene is Steve Dawson, a musician, songwriter, producer, and owner of Black Hen records. During his relatively brief career he has won seven Juno Awards and has produced some very solid work as a sideman and a solo artist, plus he is doing the Lords work by helping other artists get their careers started. Steve recently moved to Nashville, which will surely help get his music more attention here in the states.
Rattlesnake Cage is Dawsons sixth solo release (if I counted right), and this one is unique in that it is an all-acoustic instrumental disc. All 11 songs were written by Steve, and he handles all of the guitar chores, including 6 and 12-string acoustics and a National Tricone. That is all -- no vocals, no overdubs, no effects, and no backing musicians. He used a Neumann M49 microphone that had been hanging in a Detroit church for 50 years to record this album. This is the holy grail of tube microphones, and they are known for having a lovely top end and lots of weight in the lows. He made the most of this hallowed mic, and it captured the essence of his performance perfectly that it sounds like he is playing in your living room.
Right from the first track, Blind Thomas at the Crime Scene it is apparent that this album is special. This tune is almost like a country song with a blues melody laid over the top of it. It is easy to forget that there is only one musician here and that there are no overdubs to enhance his super-clean finger picking. He keeps dead perfect time despite the intricacy of what he is doing, and he leaves no doubt that he has the skills to pull off this one-man show.
It is natural to compare Dawson to modern day guitar virtuosos such as Leo Kottke, John Fahey and Gary Davis, which is a huge compliment, but Steve has a style of his own. After one serious listen of this album it is easy to come back later and recognize his playing because this unique amalgamation of blues, jazz, country, and folk is his alone. A neat example of this is The Medicine Show Comes to Avalon, a light-hearted ragtime piece that sounds deceptively simple, but his thoughtful writing and exemplary performance skills make it sound less complicated than it really is.
Steve keeps things interesting throughout, and each subsequent song shows that he is not a one trick pony. The title track has a greater dynamic range than the earlier songs as he alternates digging hard into the strings with some slick slide stylings. From there he slows into the ballad-like Lighthouse Avenue which is simultaneously gritty and melodic. Then there is J.R. Lockleys Dilemna which is the most bluesy of the bunch, complete with luscious slide steel guitar. Each song is like a new chapter in a book that just cannot be set down.
An all-acoustic guitar album could get tedious, but Dawson prevented this by changing things up with each track and the final song of the set, The Altar at Center Raven, arrives too quickly. This 12-string romp is fun and its uptempo melody will leave you with a smile on your face.
It should be mentioned that Steve did a nice job of mixing and mastering all of the tracks so that the level is consistent and the sound is as clear as a bell throughout. His hard work in the studio and post-production set the stage so that there was nothing to distract from his guitars and his talented hands.
Rattlesnake Cage is a breathtaking album of original roots and blues music from Steve Dawson, and it is a must-have for lovers of the acoustic guitar. Steve is touring around Canada for the rest of the year, and unfortunately there are no plans for him to travel south of the border (so far). Hopefully he can use the momentum from this CD to gain new fans from the United States, and we will get to see him perform here soon!