at the bottom of a canyon in the branches of a tree
Besides having one of the longest and strangest album titles seen in some time, Chicago-based singer- songwriter Steve Dawson brings us a powerful album of loss and rebirth. Dawson is vastly underrecognized and underrated but has long been one of our best songwriters, whether leading the Americana band Dolly Varden or the genre defying Funeral Bonsai Wedding. This time the album justifiably bears only his name. He not only wrote all the songs but played every instrument too excepting just a few guest spots.
In 2017 Dawson quit songwriting and performing due to losses of his mother-in-law and father-in-law that same year, the recent passing of his mother, and ongoing reflections of abandonment by his father. At that point he didn’t know if he cared enough about music to keep going. The spark returned after he attended Richard Thompson’s summer songwriting camp in the Catskills where Patty Griffin was the special guest. It was Griffin, who has sung beautifully about loss and holds nothing back, who inspired him.
Over the next three years he wrote dozens of songs in his own home studio. He even created three or four versions of the same song to find the optimal arrangement. It was during this period that he recorded perhaps his best work, Funeral Bonsai Wedding’s Last Flight Out (2020). This writer recalls seeing Dawson fronting Dolly Varden at SXSW about 15 years ago, (unlike many acts from that period that remain as blurred memories) recognizing that he had special songwriting gifts even then. Some even compared Last Flight Out to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks because it embraced space, jazz, and unconventional structures. Around this same time the City of Chicago gave Dawson an Esteemed Artist Award and a $10,000 grant to recognize his body of work and future recordings, this being the first one and his debut for Pravda Records.
The album is a mix of indelible memories, vivid lyric imagery, and emotional depth. Take this verse from “Forgiveness Is Nothing Like I Thought It Would Be” for example – “God damn these reverberations/that shake loose the will/flipping through the radio stations/I see you now at the wheel/Watching signs for a way to get through/As the fire raged, I ran away with you/900 miles down a highway from the truth/ Never realizing the damage it would do.” “Hard Time Friend,” with Alton Smith on piano and one of Dawson’s most emotive vocal on any of his records, cuts equally deep and somehow evokes Jackson Browne. “The Spaces In Between,” imbued by Michael Miles’ banjo, conjures the kind of reflections many of us had during the pandemic. “I Will Never Stop Being Sorry” captures guilt and paranoia – “But who are these ghosts/Who plot and who plan?/Who stomp ‘round the room/With their sacks of sand”
Yet there are some brighter moments too. The smooth, floating “Beautiful Mathematics” is a tender, sublime love song. Tempo picks up with the soulful organ driven “Time to Remember,” setting up one of the standout tracks, “We Are Walking in a Forest,” a duet with Dolly Varden’s Diane Christiansen. The closing title tracks rocks harder than most here, defined by the lyric “I am learning to be kind/To undo the damage left behind.” The CD and digital versions have two bonus tracks – “You’re Trying Too Hard” and “However Long It Takes,” the first rather quiet and contemplative, with the latter being a passionate love song almost on emotive level of “Hard Time Friend.” (Its strength belies its relegation to a bonus track.)
The well-traveled Dawson has absorbed plenty of musical influences from late ‘60s/early ‘70s country and folk-rock of his California birthplace to country music of Idaho where he was raised, to the blues, gospel, and soul of Chicago, where he has spent most of his adult life. He has harnessed all those influences to deliver a potent album, one of the best in his career.
- Jim Hynes
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