Dawes (photo: Brittany O’Brien)
A ubiquitous facet of music radio is “live sessions” — those intimate mini-performances that artists do for stations that get uploaded straight to YouTube to add to the limitless mass of promo materials that is a band’s online presence. When I was first becoming interested in band culture, those clips — think KEXP or BBC Live Lounge — were cherished because they provided another perspective in which to foster burgeoning obsessions after I had already exhausted all available studio albums, concert videos, and loosely scattered unreleased tracks. I saw them as brief windows into an artist’s impression of their own music, fascinated by the little tweaks they made either because they were forced to strip down their instrumentation or because they simply had an opportunity to mix it up.
And to this day, my single favorite session performance is Dawes performing an acoustic rendition for LP33 of “When My Time Comes,” the Los Angeles folk-rocker’s breakthrough single from their debut album North Hills. I know absolutely nothing else about LP33, but I’ve had their name tagged into my iTunes for years because I was blown away by a then-tiny band they had invited to their space. Dawes performed the song straight; merely slowing down the tempo to suit the softer tone of the skimmed composition, so it’s not like the band impressed me by revealing a new set of strengths. Rather, by reducing the song to its most essential elements, I was able to hear more clearly what had attracted me to the song in the first place: The enveloping three-piece harmonies, the hesitantly committed guitar solo. But most significantly, I paid attention and subsequently latched onto the song’s worn-but-wise lyrics through a new angle.
Dawes is a five-piece, but lead vocalist and songwriter Taylor Goldsmith has a fairly dominant presence when you first discover the band. That’s a result of his songwriting style, which is both direct and literary — somewhere between Hemingway and Elvis Costello. It’s immediate to the extent that even when his melodies are presented defiantly without embellishment, they still stick as what you’re left replaying in your head rather than the guitars or keys. When I first dug deep into the band years ago through my attachment to their sophomore LP Nothing Is Wrong, I was captured by Goldsmith’s lyricism, and for the longest time had the impression that the music was simply a delivery means for the words. So when my primary listening focus switched from words to sounds, I stopped paying attention to Dawes. I heard a few singles here and there whenever they went out on a new album campaign, but never again watched a radio session of them performing those songs.
This last Wednesday at The Fillmore, I finally found an opportunity to see the band after failing to do so during my first run of fandom with them. Performing two sets without an opener as part of their “An Evening With Dawes” tour, Goldsmith and co. set out to shift my perception formed long ago. They shot out the gates with the schlocky “One Of Us,” a riff-focused, geometrically constructed hard-rock tune. From the “us against them” shout-along chorus to the aggressive pout Goldsmith wore while delivering his vocals, it was a marked reintroduction from the folksy cornballs I had last known the band as. And this wasn’t simply a one-off trick, as each of the next few songs continued to explore grittier textures. “Coming Back To A Man,” for instance, was led by a rough-edged southern jam, before eventually settling into a skippy romp for the pianist and guitarist to each take a solo. The most out of place detail relative to my own mental image was Goldsmith’s turn as a rock and roll caricature — peppering every line with a demonstrative delivery and selling words with showmanship rather than simply letting them hit you with their inherent value.
The over-the-top affectation wore out quickly, and it weighed down a performance that would have otherwise hit greater heights. My favorite moments were all instrumental — when the two guitarists harmonized their solos, when the bassist was in lockstep with the drummer banging on pots alongside his toms — but that left me feeling a profound emptiness since I’d initially become infatuated with this band through the stories they told. This is a technically proficient ensemble — they can groove, shred, saunter, and soar — but they simply couldn’t breath. There were moments where they broke out of that crutch, most dramatically on the two song acoustic lead into the second set of the night. When drummer Griffin Goldsmith joined his brother to harmonize on the illustrative “My Way Back Home,” I was struck by the simple beauty that recalled my most cherished memories of Dawes. But soon enough the rest of the band joined back in and Goldsmith’s momentary patience and grace returned to its previous bloat.
When the time came for “When My Time Comes,” they played it as an anthem, turning deeply affecting poetry into parsed quotables. But by then I had expected it, and even if I was still slightly disappointed, I was able to appreciate the song the way the band wanted me to. I couldn’t help but feel chills when Goldsmith shot the microphone around and the entire crowd became a booming choir to emphatically deliver the song’s yearning chorus. And even if I didn’t get to experience Dawes the way I had hoped on Wednesday, I knew that I didn’t need to. The way I wanted them was already frozen for me in time online. Instead, I had the opportunity to see them how they are now, which is in and of itself a remarkable fortune given how long I’d waited to attempt to do so. As goes the chorus on the band’s final song for the evening, Dawes wish for your sake that “all your favorite bands stay together.” But still, I’m not so convinced of that sentiment — I think you’re better off if you can remain interested in all your favorite bands.