Steve Dawson – At The Bottom Of A Canyon In The Branches Of A Tree: Album Review

Steve Dawson showcases his wide array of musical skills on his new album which oozes ’70s singer-songwriter charm whilst being entirely of the moment.

Release date: 16th July 2021

Label: Pravda Records

Format: CD / Digital

I’m uncertain quite which canyon, but Laurel would seem to be a fair good bet. Oozing classic ‘70s singer-songwriter charm, this disc somehow and simultaneously seems entirely of the moment. Exquisitely put together, this amount of relaxed vibe needs meticulous attention to detail: fine honing the spontaneous  ‘lets just pick up our guitars here’ mood needs both practice and precision, and Dawson has both the songs and the skill.

Plus, when you realise it is practically a one-man show, he responsible for all the instrumentation, bar some banjo and additional piano, and a sole additional vocal, it becomes all the more astonishing. The guitars, the keyboards, the bass and, fer chrissake, the drums, plus snippets of accordion, dulcimer, mellotron, all him. And the singing, well, we’ll come back to that. The only thing he didn’t do was paint the cover. (Something to consider for your next release, Steve?)

This Steve Dawson is neither the Canadian producer, nor the erstwhile Saxon bassist. He is an American, originally from California and with a three-decade track record in music. Interspersing solo material with that of the band, Dolly Varden, which he co-founded with his wife, Diane Christiansen, after the pair met as part of the Chicago self-styled twang-punk band, Stump the Host, he had recently been thinking of jacking it all in.

Bereft from the deaths of Christiansen’s parents, reawakening thoughts of his own parents, the death of his mother and his abandonment by his father, it was his attendance at one of Richard Thompsons Frets And Refrains songwriting retreats that reawakened his creative juices. Particularly inspired by the presence of Patty Griffin, and her ability to address difficult truths in prayer-like songs, he remembered quite why he had started songwriting in the first place. Three years of writing, revisioning and reworking and this song set was complete. For which we can all be grateful.

With 12 songs on the record, 14 on the expanded CD, it would be insidious to go through each in turn, but I would recommend a total immersion, start to finish, rather than any random cherry picking, even if signposted by these personal highlights.

Opener, This Is All There Is’ belies its somewhat bleak-sounding title, and lyric, and is a melancholically hopeful ballad, with echoes, structurally and vocally, of Gerry Rafferty at his peak. It is Jackson Browne who comes more to mind over the next track, Forgiveness Is Nothing Like I Thought It Would Be, but resist any suggestion this is just a ragbag of copycatting, it is more a pointer to the quality of the writing. Again bittersweet, this carries on into the next track, made all the more jaunty by the aforementioned banjo, courtesy of Michael Miles.

‘22 Rubber Bands’ opens consummately with a brisk Summer Breeze-y shuffle of guitars and organ, solo guitar trilling over the top, lap steel moaning in the middle distance, a minute or so before Dawson’s higher register chips in. An earworm of the highest order, this is a high point of the record. Thoughtfully, rather than maintaining the momentum, a gear down or two is dipped, to give the amiable contrast of the finger-picked She Knew, ahead of the mournful Hard Time Friend, which introduces the piano of Alton Smith in a classy Nashville West setting.

The nominal side 2 starts all a’shimmery, with the aching soar of Beautiful Mathematics, with glorious electric piano and bass guitar singing alongside each other. A brief fingerpicked interlude acts as a buffer ahead of another songbomb, Will Never Stop Being Sorry, which makes up for its brevity with a stop whatever you’re doing lyric, sung in a keening beseech that provokes an instant replay.

It is disco lite territory, surprisingly, that Dawson next struts into, for Time To Remember, all very Casablanca, the record label. Appealing enough, and done very well, but not quite my bag. Needing a lift, he then invites in his wife, Christiansen, to add her vocals to his, for We Are Walking in a Forest, uncertain if the song quite matches up that necessity. But any sense of flagging is swiftly dismissed by the title track, which is up there with the stronger tracks, with no small whiff of Neil Young at his gentler side, the multi-tracked harmony vocal sounding very Ronstadt. Which is clever.

Two final tracks appear on the CD version, the wistfully plaintive You’re Trying Too Hard and the spare However Long It Takes. The former cements itself into a classic, and, mixing metaphors, would prove you to be made of the same material should it not bring a tear to your eye, pipe organ and Spanish guitar cradling his sad vocals. And, had you got this far wondering if the boy can sing, the last song proves without a doubt that he can, soaring and swooping as his heart splits asunder, ahead of his hope cleaving it back together.

Wow. This really is a remarkable body of work. The songs, the playing, the production: yeah, he did that too, all of it, a composite beauty. And should my references have you feeling it all derivative old hat, then you are wrong. Any fan of the more lyrical moments of Dawes or Jonathan Wilson will have nothing to fear here. Exiting as fans of Steve Dawson.

Steve Dawson: Website / Twitter / Facebook

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