Dawes at First Avenue

Dawes publicity photo

There is something about the sincerity of a Dawes performance that hits you like a punch to the gut and leaves you a little shell-shocked. Frontman Taylor Goldsmith spits out lyrics like he’s been bottling them up for years—and maybe he has, and maybe that’s why they’re so good. And if it’s not the rock-solid honesty in the lyrics that gets you, it’s the mad guitar-picking from Goldsmith and bassist Wylie Gerber, or the easy keying from Alex Casnoff’s Hammond, or the enthusiastic drum beats of Griffin Goldsmith (younger brother to Taylor). Or maybe it’s the way they’re just all so damn earnest and humble.

“Are you guys sure you came to the right show?” asked Goldsmith after firing up the audience with “My Girl To Me”. “Because Dawes has never played to this many people before.”

True enough, it looked like First Ave’s Mainroom was a full house, and packed with people who seemed to expect great things. The country-prairie-revival sound that blends blues and rock is one of the most popular genres on the scene, and Twin Cities market is especially strong as people line up for bands like the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons. Dawes did not disappoint, and if the Mainroom wasn’t sold out last night, it certainly will be the next time the band comes to town.

The energy these guys bring to the stage is a fierce force, and certainly stirred up an emotional response from the crowd. The audience at First Ave had clearly memorized the entire North Hills album, and cheered when Goldsmith announced that the band had recorded an album in September, which is set to release sometime in May next year. They played a slew of new songs from that as-yet untitled album, like the spirited gem “Fire Away”, which unleashed all the frenzy of a gospel Sunday on the audience. Casual listeners were quickly converted into committed Dawes enthusiasts about thirty seconds into the set, and the devotion of the crowd was as attached to the stomp-worthy jam sessions that broke out as they were to the candid lyrics—lyrics simultaneously personal and universal, heartbreaking and empowering.

It’s the theme of uncertainty in the face of life that all the band’s songs return to: that feeling of only sort of knowing where you are in the world and not understanding why, or where to go next, while gathering the strength to go on anyway. “I need a graceful, proud way to let go, to smile and accept the things that you don’t know,” croons Goldsmith on the heavy ballad “Love Is All I Am”. That message rings loud and clear for everyone, but it sounds so much better coming from Goldsmith’s lips.

For a young band (members are aged 19 to 24) on their very first headlining tour, the alt-country rockers sound sweetly familiar, as though their folksy tunes happened to roll right out of a lolling California valley an onto a stage. Indeed, the Dawes sound was born out of a long history of folk-rock, from CSN&Y to Canned Heat, and if you listen closely, you’ll find that dreamy Laurel Canyon-brand of L.A. sound that is too often mistaken for simple southern twang. Dawes offers a little more than that with a bare-bones, from-the-heart performance that seems in part an ode to the traditional Americana that built today’s indie alt-rock scene.

They bring plenty of their own stuff, though, and every moment they were on stage was golden—from the shout-outs to fans (bidding bon voyage to a certain metro-area photographer Meredith Westin, who’s moving to Spain) to the dueling instruments to the funny faces they make while playing them. Goldsmith is a master at crowd-wrangling, and as he and his bandmates walked slowly back onstage for the encore, he smiled and thanked the audience again for a wonderful night before diving into a set of new material.

“I guess all of our songs are about the same thing,” admitted Goldsmith, “but this one sums it up a little better than the rest, and it’s only any good if we all sing it.” With that, he started in on the rousing one-liner “(I’ve Got A Feelin’) It’s Gonna Be All Right”, joined in by the audience in an absolute celebration of sound.

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