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All words: Stephanie Breijo
All photos: Kara Capelli

Folk is what the people sing. Peel back the layers from the 21st-Century’s “folk revival” to country to hymns to protest songs to a flood of suffixes–“-rock,” “-lore,” “-ballads,”   “-influence,” etc.–and you get a genre with an unidentifiable origin and a blanket term most labels/critics/listening stations at your nearest retailer will slap on the first band they see. In today’s popularization of the title, it’s difficult to predict which “folk” acts could achieve the legendary paths Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Neil Young already paved for themselves in a classification so vast.

But stripped down to its barest, folk is a music that tells a story; a tale people feel at their core enough to chant in the fields or belt out in a roomful of strangers. And if 9:30 Club’s bellowing singalongs and whoops and hollers were any indication last Saturday, both Dawes and Sara Watkins are well on their way to cementing their spots in the genre’s rich lineage.

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With an infectious smile and a wave, Sara Watkins took to the stage with her brother Sean–two-thirds of bluegrass trio Nickel Creek. Much to the audience’s pleasure, the two began fiddling and stomping their way through a clear crowd pleaser “You and Me,” the hoots and “eeeeeeeeeee-ays!!!”  drowning out the thudding pounds of Miss Watkins’s black platform boots on the Club’s stage.

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Long, sweeping movements on her fiddle layered with Sean’s tenaciously gentle picking on his acoustic guitar laid the perfect groundwork for peaceful two-part harmonies and Sara’s breathy softness in her upper register, transporting a D.C. audience to dusty roads and dirty feet.

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Just as a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “You’re the One I Love”–sung with Fiona Apple on Sun Midnight Sun–showcased Sara’s masterful way of throwing her voice between falsetto and powerful belting, the banter introducing the song revealed her sense of humor. “It’s a special thing  to sing a love song with your brother, ladies and gentlemen,” she laughed. “I don’t know how many of you have done that before.”

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But the most remarkable aspect I found in the Watkins’ set was not their endearing humor, nor was it the incredible cover of Jon Brion’s “Same Mistakes” (easily my favorite/biggest surprise during any live show of recent memory); it was the same simple sadness I seek in Hank Williams and early Jerry Lee Lewis records. Sara Watkins is an expert songwriter who understands her roots in country lore–the same folk archetypes of a broken heart and melancholy tales that remind you it’s okay to wallow in loss; it’s human.

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Marked by multiple rounds of cheering at dead space after the Watkins’ set, you could sense the audience was restless for their headlining band–a foursome thrust into the blogosphere and instant acclaim after their 2009 debut North Hills–a band that took one month off from touring to record their 2011 follow-up Nothing is Wrong, and promptly resumed their lives on the road. They’ve opened for the likes of M. Ward and Bright Eyes and played/recorded with legends Jackson Browne, Robbie Robertson, John Fogerty and Peter Seger. But Saturday was special for for Dawes and their fans; the night marked the band’s first headlining gig at 9:30 Club, sold out and packed to the brim, tornado warning be damned.

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Drummer Griffin Goldsmith smiled as he walked onstage and began the groundwork for the band’s opening number, “My Girl to Me,” a swinging North Hills track devoted almost entirely to tongue-in-cheek jealousy. Bassist Wylie Gelber and pianist/keyboardist Tay Strathairn quickly took to the stage and to their instruments; it wasn’t until just before the song’s electrifying guitar riff that Taylor Goldsmith–lead singer, primary songwriter and older brother to Griffin–ran onstage, all energy, his mop of curly brown hair bouncing with him.

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To see Dawes live is an extraordinary treat marked by four individual performances equally distinct, converging to make one whole that solidifies the hype–an especially remarkable feat considering the men of Dawes don’t seem to care for hype at all, just the satisfaction of living and breathing music. While Taylor’s showmanship often steals the stage, his feet rocking back and forth in one-two motions that swing his whole body, Strathairn’s coolness only makes the extraordinary weight and frenetic motion on his keys all the more intriguing. And while Griffin remains centered, snarling and ready to attack his drum kit, Gelber just smiles smugly, his tall, wiry frame buckling at the knees in ecstasy of an emotive bass line.

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Saturday marked the third time I’d seen Dawes and the first I’d seen them headline. As the silk of Taylor’s voice cut through the grit and twang of the group’s energetic playing, as that guitar hook from “The Way You Laugh” ebbed and flowed and the entire audience shouted along the lyrics “True lovers always end up lonely / ‘Cause they know how good it could be,” I could tell tonight was different. The band had come into their own in D.C. and we welcomed them as their own act, an homage to the greats that had come before them not only in folk but so many genres; it’s only sensical that Dawes shatters pigeon-holing descriptions like “Laurel Canyon sound” and “L.A. music.”

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The foursome played three new songs, one of which had never been played for an audience before. D.C. was lucky enough to hear “Something in Common,” a shining example of Dawes’ perfect ballads of love lost, with slow meandering beats and soulful bass. “Just My Luck” is a semi-jaded, resigned stance of a ballad with light, jingling piano keys that linger with you and “From a Window Seat” is a funkier up-tempo about feeling fear when you get onto a plane.

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“I hope you all know how happy this makes us feel,” Taylor told the audience, smiling. “This is a Dawes headlining show! This is real special!” The audience screamed its appreciation before the quartet softly began “Million Dollar Bill,” a highlight of the night marked by gentle blue spotlights and sly, soft harmonies. But whether adding a certain funkiness to a cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” or masterfully attacking “Western Skyline”–one of 2009’s strongest opening tracks–and especially the anthemic, pounding single “When My Time Comes”–a singalong inciting an almost deafening chorus of belting, screaming fans–it was obvious that if folk is what the people sing, Dawes is securing their position with the greats, no matter which way you peg ’em.

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