Everyone’s got a story to tell. Sometimes it’s to colleagues over coffee around the water cooler. Sometimes they tell it to friends over a crisp beer and campfire. Maybe they whisper it into their lover’s ear on a lazy Sunday morning in bed. Last night in Reno, Los Angeles’ Dawes chose to tell a career’s worth of stories under the bright lights of Cargo Concert Hall to room full of endearing fans who hung on every word.
For people who’ve been bumpin’ Dawes records since the band’s debut “North Hills” — or any of its subsequent five albums, really— you’ll know lead singer and primary songwriter Taylor Goldsmith is one of this generation’s best storytellers (and underrated guitarists). His stories are filled with honesty, vulnerability and an awareness of what’s stirring inside of him. There’s a reason T-Bone Burnett included Goldsmith in songwriter supergroup The New Basement Tapes with Jim James, Rhiannon Giddens, Marcus Mumford and Elvis Costello to complete unfinished lyrics from the ultimate storyteller, Bob Dylan.
It’s not just his words, though, as Goldsmith’s lyrical stories are given life by the combined musical prowess of band members Wylie Gelber (bass), Lee Pardini (keyboards) and brother Griffin Goldsmith (drums). Dawes has evolved from its initial, easy California-cana sound to a sonically rich, AOR-powerhouse that can cruise though polished jams, tear-jerking ballads and anthemic blowouts with casual dexterity. It’s also the rare breed of band that seems to actively want to diversify its sound on some level with each album, succeeding more often than not.
The group’s latest offering to the musical gods, “Passwords,” is another deeping of its sound. Produced by friend and sonic sage Jonathan Wilson, the songs are expansive yet insular, with Wilson’s production style and Pardini’s synth tonal aesthetics giving the album a sleek, ’80s tender-rock veneer. Dawes chose to lead off the night with the album’s opener, “Living in the Future,” a mid-tempo track powered by lurching power chords and accentuated by waves of Pardini’s synths that crashed down onto the crowd. “We’re living in the future, so shine a little light,” pleaded Goldsmith, paranoia seeping through his dramatic delivery.
The overcast nature of the song was quickly burned off by the sunny-day romance of “Time Spent in Los Angeles” from the outfit’s second album, “Nothing Is Wrong,” with touring guitarist Trevor Menear adding that “tragic set of charm” to his golden guitar solo as the band strolled around him.
Dawes flexed its musical muscle for the first time with a brawny “Right On Time,” the band heading out into an extended jam with both Menear and Pardini showcasing some choice cuts throughout. After the musical workout, Taylor stopped for a moment to share that the next song, “Never Gonna Say Goodbye,” was “about getting married, which I’m gonna do here pretty soon.” The lead singer is set to marry singer-actress Mandy Moore. “I never knew how to be scared, Till I found something I knew I couldn’t lose,” is as beautiful, corny and honest a line as you’d hope to say to someone, and as he sweetly sang to the swooned audience, I wondered how many songs have lines he’s used in real life? Better yet, how many lines could he not use in real life because he had already put them in a song? One could only guess.
One thing you didn’t need to guess about was whether this band could rip. Sure, on record, the band can sometimes lull you into mid-tempo apathy. But live, the band is a juiced workhorse that can really run you around the track a couple times. Pardini has become the in-house utility player who can incorporate the feel of Spooner Oldham, Donald Fagen or Bruce Hornsby depending on what is needed and can dictate the mood of a whole song with a choice tone of the keyboards. Menear adds electric depth to the songs. As he and Taylor are able to share lead duties, Menear can show his chops and Taylor can display the ability to make his solos fresh and inspired.
This energetic, full-band dynamic was best on display with the one-two punch of “From a Window Seat” and “Feed The Fire.” The former featured an ominous, desert-swept intro coda and then blasted out into an expansive jam, with Griffin hipping around the turns of the song with gusto as Pardini and Menear traded heated barbs. The keyboardist then laid down a scuttling electro riff that Griffin soloed over bathed in red light— straight from a Dire Straits or Phil Collins concert from 1984— before everyone joined in for searing rendition of “Feed The Fire.” Griffin steered the cruising beat with furious virtuosity, with the song’s driving funkiness coming from Menear’s hyper-disco rhythm and featuring a sharp run of the keys from Pardini. You couldn’t walk away from the experience without thinking, “That’s a great band!”
On a related note, the members of Dawes all have some of the best jam faces in the business. Gerber and Taylor take the top spots, though Griffin’s full-faced drumming is something to behold. On a semi-related note, the band’s NBA Jam-inspired tour shirt with the whole group in Lakers colors is the best tour shirt out there.
After a subtlely intense first set, Dawes opened its second set with an acoustic trifecta of “My Greatest Invention,” “How Far We’ve Come” and “Bedside Manner.” The stunning harmonies of the brothers Goldsmith and Pardini on the last song were particularly transfixing, with the whole band coming in at the end of “Bedside Manner” to really knock out the audience.
The group continued with the more subdued mood with “Roll With The Punches,” “Stay Down,” “Crack The Case” and “Somewhere Along The Way,” though the last one featured an opened-ended jam and some of Taylor’s best guitar work.
The concert closed out with maybe the most representative trio of Dawes’ career. Before the band kicked into the quirky funk of “When The Tequila Runs Out,” probably its most popular song, Taylor relayed the song was written at an after party for one of its shows down in Joshua Tree. “All they had left were tequila and champagne, both of which were horrible. So I wrote a song about it,” he said, with a grin on his face. A rumbling and tumbling “When My Time Comes” gave the dedicated Cargo crowd the opportunity to sing along with all their might to the anthemic, life-affirming chorus of the band’s most iconic song, a staple that the members have played at probably close to every show.
“This song is about everyone here,” shouted Taylor as Pardini twinkled out the chords to “All Your Favorite Bands” on the piano. The best sing-along in the group’s inventory, it’s the reflection of all the stories Taylor and Dawes have had on the road, a tip of the hat to everyone they’ve seen and everything they’ve experienced. Taylor let the crowd sing the last chorus acapella as he and the rest in the band stood quietly and let the heartfelt words and warm reception wash over them. They smiled as they waved goodbye and praised the people in the room. You wonder what stories the band and audience members may tell later of this special night in the Biggest Little City in The World.
— Garrett Bethmann