Friday, April 1, 2011



Steve Dawson is one of my most favourite Canadian players and producers.  The Juno-winning multi-instrumentalist and former member of Zubot and Dawson works out of Vancouver, runs the cool Black Hen label, and has produced some of the best all-Canadian music of the past few years.  That includes Juno winners for Old Man Luedecke, plus discs for The Sojourners, The Deep Dark Woods, Kelly Joe Phelps, Jim Byrnes, and more.  His project A Tribute To The Music Of The Mississippi Sheiks was named the best blues album of 2010 by England's respected Mojo Magazine.

Dawson serves up a mighty fine set of originals here, all with a solid groove and great ensemble playing.  He has the ability to hear exactly what moment to fill in the holes with a little lick, or a keyboard part, tasty keys supplied here by Chris Gestrin.  And note-for-note, you're going to be hard-pressed to find a better roots/blues guitar player in the country, which also goes for his work on a bunch of other stringed and keyed instruments here.  The songs too need to be praised.  In a genre rife with cliches, Dawson rarely falls into the usual 12-bar traps, lyrically or musically.  Darker Still, a trip into lonely nighttime, ends with an extended coda where Dawson plays off Gestrin's Wurlitzer.  The title track continues the evening theme, with "the nightshade the deadliest of them all", a cool song that completely switches gears and tempos in the middle, for a big slide solo.  Jill Barber joins for harmonies on the relaxed and fun Walk On.  On each song, there's a moment worthy of sitting up and smiling, especially for blues fans looking for something different.

I repeat, Dawson is one of my favourite players and producers.  Unfortunately, he is not one of my favourite singers.  Blues doesn't require the greatest singers, but it does sound best when the singer has some unique personality or force.  Dawson's lone weak spot is a soulless voice.   There's no presence or strength, no guts or gravel.  That's a hard problem to fix, especially for such a good songwriter.  He's the producer, so nobody is telling him to bury his voice in the mix, but maybe that might help.  You want to hear the fine lyrics, but listening to him sing "hey hey mama" in Gulf Coast Bay, the lone cover here, is a bit of an advertisement for why some have said white men shouldn't sing the blues.  That's not true of course, but he does sound like his mom packed his lunch for him on the way to the studio.  Howlin' Wolf, he ain't.  Everything else about Steve Dawson and this album I love, so you'll have to judge how much the vocals mean to your listening experience.

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