Steve Dawson, who splits his time between Vancouver, Canada, and Nashville, is the owner of one of Canada’s premier roots labels, Black Hen Records, and is renowned for his songwriting, multi-instrumental skills, and as a top-notch producer. Lest there be any confusion, there is another Steve Dawson, a singer-songwriter and leader of the band, Dolly Varden, out of Chicago. Okay, with that aside, Dawson is delivering Gone, Long Gone, his first batch of original songs since his Solid States and Loose Ends from 2016. Dawson, like other Nashville guitarists/producers such as Buddy Miller, Will Kimbrough, and Doug Lancio, shows up as a sideman on multiple projects, most notably with the Birds of Chicago and his friend, Matt Anderson and multiple artists on his label. The pandemic obviously slowed him down and this is the first of three albums that he completed during the period. Phantom Threshold, a psychedelic pedal steel-driven instrumental album, is due in July 2022.
This writer has covered all of Dawson’s solo efforts in one outlet or another and can certify that this is by far his strongest vocal performance. His mastery of various guitars and a handful of keyboard instruments is well documented. These may also be the best-crafted songs Dawson has committed to record. Part of that is due to the first time he’s ever collaborated with another singer-songwriter. Seven of the nine originals, all the vocal songs, were co-written with Alberta singer-songwriter Matt Patershuk, who released his own brilliant An Honest Effort last November on Black Hen.
Dawson’s presence in both Nashville and Vancouver allows him to tap the best roots musicians for each locale. Aboard for these sessions are John Prine alumnus and in-demand multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, bassist Jeremy Holmes, acclaimed keyboardist, the ubiquitous Kevin McKendree, trumpeter Malcolm Aiken, tenorist Dominic Conway, bari-sax player Jerry Cook, drummers Gary Craig and Jay Bellerose, keyboardist Chris Gestrin, and former “Birds of Chicago” bandmate Allison Russell (who delivered perhaps the best roots album of 2021 with Outside Child) and Dawson’s daughter, Casey Dawson.
The album kicks off with punchy horns (the only track has them) behind the toe-tapping “Dimes,” swathed in Russell’s gorgeous harmonies, McKendree’s organ, and punctuated by Dawson’s guitars, especially his slicing slide. “King Bennie Had His Shit Together” features McKendree’s vaudeville-like piano, stellar fiddle from Kaplin, but mostly the indelible chorus “You can still call me king.” It’s the timeless kind of song that seems both old and new at the same time. “Bad Omen” is a stomping blues, featuring Dawson on Weissenborn with McKendree’s swirling B3 and Bellerose’s nifty beats. Again, there’s an infectious, memorable chorus – “Bad omen’s scratching at the door and I just let it in.”
The title track may be a preview of sorts for his forthcoming pedal steel album as Dawson plays that instrument as well as fingerpicks his acoustic in the gently moving, gorgeously sung tune that’s accompanied by Nashville’s string duo – Ben Plotnick (violin, viola) and Kaitlyn Reitz (cello). Dawson pulls out an impressive arsenal for “I Just Get Lost,” playing slide, acoustic and electric guitars, National guitar, Mellotron, Farfisa, and pump organ. It’s a stirring, rambling folk-like tune marked again by Russell’s unmistakable high harmonies. “Kalantapia Waltz” is an instrumental with Dawson playing various guitars and ukulele, blending the sonics impeccably.
The oddly titled “6 Skeletons in a Car” features both Russell and Kari Latimer on harmonies. Dawson cuts piercing lines on his guitars while Gestrin’s organ and synth provide the requisite spooky backdrop and the twin drummers, Craig and Bellerose push it along. They introduce the only cover, a slowed-down version of The Faces’ “Ooh La La,” with Dawson’s daughter joining Russell on backgrounds as Dawson primarily picks the National guitar. “Cicada Sanctuary” is a solo fingerpicking masterclass while the finale, “Time Has Made a Fool Out of Me” is a stripped-down, mostly acoustic blues with Dawson’s ringing, reverberating slide guitar, and Russell again joining with her trademark harmony.
We’ve long come to expect scintillating instrumental work from Dawson and his cohorts, but he marries those skills with terrific songs in this outing. There is simply not a more talented roots musician. This is Dawson’s tour de force to date, among an already impressive body of work.