Steve Dawson: Waiting for the Lights to Come Up

[3 March 2008]

By Stuart Henderson

PopMatters Features Editor

For a city-dweller—Dawson hails from Vancouver, BC—this record is thoroughly rustic. Spare, honest arrangements frame a series of generally well-crafted songs throughout this, Dawson’s second solo release (and first of two expected to drop this year). His famous proficiency on guitars is here on fine display, as is his much-improved voice, a thin rasp, like a very young Guy Clark crossed with an older Bruce Cockburn. His songwriting, meanwhile, explores a true fusion of genres, employing traditional, contemporary folk, and delta blues cues in equal measures. The result is a bit uneven, sort of like a series of genre experiments in uneasy sequence, but the individual effect of each track is powerful. Unfortunately, while the music is quite uniformly persuasive, Dawson’s lyrics tend toward unfocused, even awkward metaphor and phrasing: “Silence hits like a hurricane missing its mark” is a typical example.

What keeps this regrettable stuff mostly hidden is the crisp, spot-on production here. In short, this record sounds great. Dawson has taken up production duties himself, and has proven himself a master of acoustic studio work (keep an eye on him all ye aspiring folkies looking for someone to turn the knobs). To get a sense of his feel for the stuff, take a listen to the dreamy (if overlong) blues of “Fire Somewhere”. On this standout track, Dawson makes impressive use of his own accomplished slide guitar, while riding some excellent percussion work, letting each instrument dance off the other as the fire burns up, slowly, inexorably. The catchy “Ruin My Day” plays like a pop song run through the acoustic ringer and comes across beautifully for the effect. The hot, fast, trad-style instrumental “Hard to Get Gertie” is as fun to listen to as it likely was to play. And, the lilting “Hurricane” is arresting in its tragedy and beauty. If the lyrics were up to the level of the music on this release, it’d be an unqualified success. Dawson can also be heard in his impressive acoustic duo Zubot and Dawson, playing a weird and yet compelling brand of genre mind-meld, combining jazz, folk, trad, blues, and world musics into one unhinged “sound”. All his work is available through his self-run label, Black Hen Music.

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