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all words: Kerri Pinchuk
all photos: Becky Harlan

“Washington is one of the best cities in the world, and one of the best for music.” There’s nothing like a little sweet talk to butter up a crowd. Not that Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes needed to. He had us at “Hello there…I bet it’s gonna be a fun night.”

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Goldsmith, lead singer, frontman, and one-fourth of Dawes, steered the band and a sold-out 9:30 Club through nearly two straight hours of hits on Wednesday night, proving that folk is, in fact, back.

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I’m fairly new to Dawes’s music (no judging, ok?), but this was my second time seeing the band perform live, the first being an “intimate” show at Baltimore record haven Soundgarden back in the spring. At that time they were promoting their newest album “Stories Don’t End” and I’d barely heard of them (what did I say?)— so in my mind, that acoustic set cemented the quartet as a true folk rock band.

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You can’t deny the ‘70s rock roots in most of the music: their harmonies have been compared to CSNY’s, and their California sound to Jackson Browne’s. And indie diehards can deny it all they want, but there’s an undeniable, slightly country, Neil Young-esque bent that twangs itself across a few songs. Lyrically, the band pays as much mind to storytelling as it does to melody-making—another hallmark of that earlier rock ‘n’ roll era, when “lyrics” were simply thoughtful poetry set to music.

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Though critics noted that “Stories Don’t End”  was a successful step outside that box for the band, it’s the box that fans show up for. And Goldsmith seemed smugly pleased to occasionally step back from the mike and invite the crowd to belt out his lyrics—either along with the music or a cappella. And so a majority of Wednesday’s set played like a jukebox tour through those fan favorites across all albums: a sing-along session of “If I Wanted Someone,” a beautifully harmony-heavy “Fire Away,” and a “When My Time Comes” that had the rowdy crew next to me arm-in-arm and fists in the air, chanting out the chorus like a fratty drinking song.

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And then it happens. Sometime after “When My Time Comes,” Goldsmith introduces keyboardist Tay Strathairn, who dives fedora-first into a frenzied solo. The others soon jump in, and suddenly it’s been eight or nine minutes of straight jamming, and no one has come up for air. Goldsmith finally proves his chops on the strings, as does bassist Wylie Gelber, and Griffin Goldsmith (younger bro to Taylor) beats up the drums.

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It’s a transformative shift from the evening’s earlier hook-and-chorus set. The improvisation is the first time in the night that we get a sense of the guys as true musicians who feed off of each other’s creativity, get lost in the music, and somehow find their way back with that incredible sense of ESP that I like to think only exists between loving bandmates.

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This isn’t to say that Dawes weren’t “true musicians” the rest of the night and every night; it just seemed like such an unpredictable departure. Hoards of dancing fans clearly appreciated the energy, and the band themselves were ecstatic to be having fun. Because for their level of musicianship, there’s nothing fancy about Dawes. There’s no crazy stage or set or even a backdrop; Goldsmith is certainly charismatic, but he doesn’t stray far from center mike other than to dabble on the keys for a few songs.

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Before the encores, they close out the set with a cover of 1960s-70s legend Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” (cue the “ironic” lighter waving), “Time Spent in Los Angeles,” and “A Little Bit of Everything,” the latter two a duo of Dawes’s most popular songs. If “Stories Don’t End” was an attempt to depart from Dawes’s folky identity, Wednesday’s setlist suggested otherwise. With a setlist that nods to Bob Seger and the improv jam bands of classic rock, it’s safe to say that they’ve rightfully earned an identity as America’s new folk rock heroes.

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