The California Sound born in Laurel Canyon in the ’60s remains an indelible influence on modern music, present to varying degrees in everything from the lush folktronica of Avicii to the shimmering melancholy of Lana Del Ray and the operatically dense orchestrations of Vampire Weekend. But nowhere is it more openly on display than in the sunny folk rock of California’s own Dawes.
The group’s newest album, Passwords, is mellower than previous releases, but doesn’t wander far from their comfort zone musically. However, they do tread new ground thematically, tackling larger questions of life and love, growth and maturity, politics and privacy.
Like many around the globe, band leader and songwriter Taylor Goldsmith (lead vocals, guitar) has wrestled with the consequences of a polarized, populist political landscape, and he processes it in various ways: advocating for compassionate dialogue between hostile parties (“Crack the Case”), putting himself in others’ shoes to dissect their experiences and motivations (“Telescope”), and pondering the intersection of past and present choices on the future (“Time Flies Either Way”).
Alongside this pondering on a grand, societal scale, Goldsmith also brings his particular class of detailed introspection to bear on a personal level on topics like true love (“Never Gonna Say Goodbye”), the nature of fame (“Feed the Fire”), and implications of hard living (“Stay Down”).
Passwords may mark a more mature—and sedate—period for the band in the studio, but their live show remains the group’s true apotheosis: a rowdy, rollicking good time that wanders at will through their 10-year, 6-album career while retooling old favorites, debuting unheard tracks, and pulling the crowd together in anthemic sing-alongs.
The May 17, 2019 show at the North Carolina Museum of Art was the first Evening with Dawes show the band has held since February, and even they were giddy coming out onstage. “We’ve haven’t done one of these in awhile, and I’ve been itching for this, been looking forward to it,” Taylor effused after the first few songs.
The venue couldn’t have been better: a fireball sun sinking behind the crowd, casting golden hour light over the stage, while the sculpture garden and park stretched out behind—emerald green hills and copses meeting a bruised plum horizon pregnant with a rising full moon.
It’s hard to narrow down the most notable moments of the night when the entire experience was a highlight of concerts in my year to date—but I’ll do my best.
One standout came early in the first set with a re-imagined hard rock version of “Coming Back to a Man,” featuring an extended jam session during the bridge. Another was first set closer “A Little Bit of Everything,” which received some unexpected punctuation from fireworks set off at neighboring North Carolina State University, synchronizing inexplicably with the crescendo of the band into the second verse, while smoke trails drifted across the bright white moon in the final moments of the song.
Finally, there was the debut of a new, unrecorded tune, an acoustic ballad opening up the second set that explored the emotional turmoil in a generation of a Florida family. Written from a son’s perspective, it wrestles with the complexities and weight of family dynamics, relational duty, and personal identity:
The Lord must really love us common folk, ’cause he made so goddamn much. Now, if he’d just point the way to go; if he’d could just start speaking up.
– “St. Augustine at Night” / unrecorded song
Check out the full setlist here and catch Dawes at a slew of dates through the summer, with plenty of festival and solo performances throughout the midwest, south, and northeast United States.