Dewi Sant CD Release Party with The Starfolk and Alison Rae at Cedar Cultural Center

Dewi Sant at the Cedar - Photo by Pamela Diedrich (Click the photo to see Pamela's full set of photos from this show.)

Michael Morris slipped a disc into my hand last Tuesday night at Kings Wine Bar and asked me to check it out. The timing couldn’t have been better. Morris had just returned from a 33 day tour of the West, and with his band, now going by the moniker Dewi Sant, he was set to play a CD Release Party for the band’s debut album, May, at the Cedar Cultural Center that coming Friday. The deal was cinched when I learned that also on the bill was The Starfolk, in my opinion one of the most delightful new bands to emerge in 2009.

Unfortunately I arrived too late to see opener Alison Rae, but our photographer Pamela Diedrich (Punctual Pamela, let’s call her) reported that Rae’s voice struck her as “softly angelic” and the audience had listened with rapt attention. One song in Rae’s set in particular stuck out for Diedrich, a song Rae had written about her grandfather. Rae said she’d written it one day when she’d been watching him and suddenly realized how much she was going to miss him when he was gone. (That song may have been “That’s When I Miss You,” a track you can listen to in an MPR in-studio recording here.)

The Starfolk occupied the middle spot on tonight’s bill. They have been one of my favorite new bands since I first heard them in the fall of 2009 when they opened for the Twilight Hours on this same stage. (Read that review here.) Though the band has yet to release a full-length disc, I have seen them enough times now that I found myself singing along and was so enamored with the show I wished honestly I could take it home with me. They’ve released only two tracks, both on 2009’s Lemon-Lime split EP with Typsy Panther, and I can’t wait to hear more recordings of their distinctly psychedelic acoustic pop.

The evening, however, belonged to Dewi Sant, an ensemble fronted by songwriter Michael Morris and featuring cast of supporting musicians too numerous to count when you include both those who played on the album and those who comprised the live band on this night. Just to mention a few, however, contributors included Ted Held (Wizards Are Real, The Wapsipinicon), Sarah Woolever and Arlen Peiffer (Cloud Cult).

My Welsh friend Chris, who was in attendance at the show pointed out that the phrase Dewi Sant is Welsh for Saint David. And Saint David, for those in the know (and those in the know did not include me) Dewi Sant is the patron saint of Wales, honored with a feast day celebrated each March 1st. (The history of St. David’s day itself is interesting stuff, and we delved into that subject a little more deeply on this month’s HowWasTheShow podcast.)

Morris and band opened up with “Red Flowers,” the CD’s opening track, and they played the nine songs on the album from start to finish. “Red Flowers” is a song whose title inevitably reminds one of “Dead Flowers” by the Rolling Stones, but whose musical feel is more aligned with Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” It’s a simple and tender five minute love song that that descends from F to C to B flat, never visiting any chords other than those, but never needing to. A fourth chord in this song would just be showing off.

Morris exhibits a hesitating, almost shy control in the presentation of his music, which gives you the impression you are eavesdropping on something intensely personal, though never self-indulgent. His songs often build in volume as they progress live in a way that can’t possibly be captured on disc. (If you’ve ever heard Ravel’s Bolero performed live, you’ll know what I mean.) Opener Alison Rae, who also sings on the Dewi Sant record, joined them on “May,” the album’s title song which features mandolin and forlorn-sounding pedal steel from Ted Held. In this song’s chorus, when Morris repeats, “I’m never letting go of you again,” you believe him.

Up next was “Forks,” a song about driving (one of many of Morris’s songs that use driving as the primary metaphor) has a certain timelessness to it. Before moving on to the next song, Morris admitted to feeling a little self-conscious on this night. His halting, formal confessions to the audience as he occasional sipped wine was somehow balanced out by pedal steel player Ted Held who casually took swigs from a PBR tallboy a few feet behind him.

The next song, “The Day I Broke the Record,” featured Morris on ukulele. This song is childlike in quality (the ukulele often has a way of bringing that out in a song), and brings to mind another quality of Morris’s music, that of prayer. Several of Morris’s songs either directly reference the word, or the entire song could almost be said to be one.

Over the course of the evening Morris said a couple times that this show had been “a long time coming.” The band had been playing almost every night while on tour before returning home a few weeks ago to get ready to play this show. Morris admitted his nervousness came from “wanting to give the best of it to you guys.” But that nervousness really didn’t show. To me it came across simply as refreshing genuineness and honesty. He mentioned that after playing for strangers so many nights in a row it was different playing for close friends and relatives, and this is something I have heard from many musicians.

The next song, a waltz called “Paulus” started quietly and then built suddenly, kicking into overdrive with a shouted out “1-2-3!” countdown from drummer Arlen Peiffer, who looked downright maniacal at times behind the kit with his oversize glasses and shaggy hair. Shortly after the build, the song returns to its quiet origins to end.

Next up was the album’s only cover song a spooky rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” which made me imagine what the song might have sounded like if Cohen himself had recorded the song as a much younger man.

“The Labor,” another song in Dewi Sant’s arsenal that has traveling as a central theme, is nothing short of fragile. He makes reference to demons in his head, and the song comes across almost as an exorcism to help free him from those demons. “The Labor” also exhibits another feature of Morris’s music, the un-affected dramatic pause. In this song, the song I selected for this month’s podcast, there’s a pause that could almost kill. It tells the story of a young man doing 95 mph on the freeway while racing to see his lover, but is pulled over by a wise-cracking state trooper who tells him, “Son, you’re making real good time. Seattle’s going nowhere. You’ll get there and she’ll be fine.”

Towards the end of the set, Morris introduced several of the band members as they left the stage leaving him alone with just Sarah Woolever for “Lullaby #1”, a song I had literally fallen asleep to earlier in the day when I’d first put the album on after a hard day at the office.  I don’t mean to imply that it’s in any way boring.  I mean to say that it’s just that comforting. And shouldn’t sleep be the net result of any real lullaby, especially if you are feeling weary or care-worn? I told Morris after the show that I was looking forward to putting the album on before bed again later that night. The beautifully arranged strings on this song prominently featured Hilary James on cello.

For an encore, Held and a couple other musicians rejoined Morris onstage and the band played a song from the new record they’ve already apparently begun recording, a cover of a song by Athens, Georgia based musician Madeline Adams called “To Hell and Back.”

Dewi Sant is definitely a band to watch this year, and their debut CD May is highly recommended.

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