While that kind of crowd and heat sounds nightmarish to some -- including me -- Goldsmith was right. Not just because of the hot and crowded party tension at a club like Off Broadway, but also because it's a rare thing to catch a young band at this stage in its career. They can fill bigger venues; recent shows happened at Minneapolis' First Avenue and Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Dawes' shows at 400-capacity venues are coming to an end, and it's a special treat to catch an ascending band at that point, when new fans are being made, old ones are thrilled at their success and the band can't quite seem to believe it's happening. That alone is worth losing a few quarts of sweat.
Openers Shovels and Rope from Charleston, S.C., are poised to fill Dawes' spot as the next up-and-comer. Husband-and-wife duo Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent cover an astounding amount of musical ground. Trent manages to play drums, keyboard, harmonica, guitar and provide vocals, sometimes all in the same song. Hurst's voice melds Dolly's chirp and Loretta's spunk for a modern twist on the angel-voiced Appalachian badass. Add her proficient guitar skills and her takes on the drums to Trent's skills, and it's a dizzying display of talent that rolled through the 45-minute set at Ramones-style breakneck speed. "Kemba's Got the Cabbage Moth Blues" took a trip to '50s honky tonk with a long cut through the punk scene, while "Tickin' Bomb" goes hot and sultry with a southern gothic knife to the back. The band's combination of skills and chemistry would have provided a thrilling night of music, especially with their fuzzed-out finale stomp, "Hail, Hail."
As kinetic as the energy was, there were plenty of shut-up-and-listen moments from the beginning of Dawes' set. Goldsmith's compelling lyrics pair with unexpected, genuine charisma that made it hard to look away from him. His verbal story overrode the catchy melodies and moveable beats on openers "From a Window Seat" and "The Way You Laugh," leaving the crowd still. There was time to move during their extended but not indulgent jams at the end of the songs.
Based in Los Angeles, Dawes is steeped in the tradition of Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters, without sounding like an Eagles update. Three-part vocal harmony on "Some People" hint at that past, but exceed it with smarter lyrics and more complex musicianship, which continued through the older, poppier "Fire Away." Drummer Griffin Goldsmith (Taylor's brother) took over vocals with keyboardist Tay Strathairn on harmonies. By the third verse Taylor creeps in for another complex harmony arrangement.
Their tightness and proficiency stay bright and meaningful because of Taylor's increasingly compelling lyrics. He said "Bear Witness" was about death, surprising new fans with a story lacking in darkness. Instead, he sings vignettes that captured mundane scenes of a lifelong love. He gives the same weight to life on the road in "From the Right Angle," with the addition of that '70s-flavored organ solo culminating in a dense jam.
Despite sounding as good, if not better, than they did when they opened for Bob Dylan at the Peabody in April, the band spent a lot of time communicating with their road crew for tweaks and fixes that didn't sound necessary. A few times this minor technical difficulties broke the flow of the show. Perhaps that level of perfection is part of the reason why Dawes is poised to break through to the next level of success. But sometimes, it's better to let the little imperfections slide. The distractions didn't stop the crowd from a soaring sing-along on "Something in Common," followed by an audience a cappella chorus on "When My Time Comes," during which a drenched, long-sleeved Goldsmith bounced around the stage when most people would be weeping for IV fluid rehydration.
As the show built to its end, he again acknowledged the small venue, saying that playing to 400 people might not seem like much, but that it's the dream. "It means more than I can articulate," said the songwriter who spent the night articulating the depth of human emotion buried in the everyday acts and interactions that don't seem important, but are really the whole of our lives.
Griffin took vocals again on a cover of Bob Seger's "We've Got Tonight" without a hint of hipster irony or tongues in cheeks. His brother abandoned his warm, airy guitar that dominates their sound in favor of organ, so seamlessly it wasn't missed. Despite their geographical and artistic connection to '70s southern California, this cover illustrated the evolution from that music, to what Dawes is creating now.
Set-ender "A Little Bit of Everything" brought the power and tenderness of the everyday into sharp focus, leaving strangers in the audience getting a little choked while singing along with the line about piling on mashed potatoes in a buffet line. The true beauty, though, was with Goldsmith ending this lyrically-rich show, where every story was so articulate and heartfelt, with a pair of lines: "It's like trying to make out every word/when you should simply hum along."
It's hard to just hum along when the singer-songwriter's form is so pristine and moving.
They returned for one encore with the expected and fun rollick of "Hey Lover," then brought Shovels and Rope back to take lead on the Traveling Wilburys' "End of the Line." Hurst and Trent harmonized the lead, Griffin fit the slight nasal Tom Petty interludes, and his brother once again slipped to the background for most of the song, only to emerge near the end to take Roy Orbison's verse with a tone and timber on par with that emotive master.
Good luck ever seeing that happen so close ever again.