Dawes became one of today’s best young rock bands by emulating the classic-rock values of their forefathers.
Jackson Browne enlisted Dawes as his band for a 2011 tour. The Band’s Robbie Robertson hired the young Los Angeles quartet that year, too, to back him on a few TV shows. This spring former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty insisted that Dawes play with him on “The Late Show With David Letterman” even though he has his own touring band.
“We feel lucky over and over again,” Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith, 27, said recently. “Creedence was as big of an influence as anything we ever listened to. So it was beyond our wildest dreams to meet him, let alone get to play Letterman with him. He said: ‘I’ll follow you guys; this is your band.’ ”
Why do these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers want a band young enough to be their children? Because Dawes — which plays two sold-out shows next week at First Avenue — is the best young live band in America.
At the same time, Dawes is something of a throwback to L.A.’s soft-rock heyday when Browne, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell ruled Laurel Canyon with harmonies, hipness and hedonism.
Browne chuckled recently when asked about rehearsing his old songs with Dawes. “We’d revamped them over the years, but Dawes — they wanted to play it exactly like the record,” he told Rolling Stone contributing editor David Browne (no relation), who said the singer/songwriter “was amused by that. He had to learn the old songs the old way.”
Even though Dawes uses an old-school approach, their music “actually feels very current,” said Los Angeles Times critic Mikael Wood. “That’s an impressive trick. There are any number of retro-y, folk-rock-y bands that don’t feel current. Like Fleet Foxes. To me, Dawes feels very fresh. It comes from his lyrics and also some sort of ineffable sensibility.
“They have that kind of unspoken professional camaraderie that I don’t see that often in other young indie-rock bands today. Taylor’s a great storyteller. And people listen to his words. It’s impressive.”
In concert, Goldsmith is like a young Bruce Springsteen — a passionate singer and an exciting guitarist — leading a tight band of brothers (that’s actually his kid brother Griffin on drums). And he is as earnest, purposeful and self-aware as Springsteen, but not obsessed with delivering big pronouncements à la U2 or even Mumford & Sons. As with Jackson Browne, his songwriting is poetic, but casual and personal.
“Like January Christmas lights under billion-year-old stars/ She comes up with more of what is lost than what is found,” he sings in “Most People” — the song the band chose to play last week when it scored a Letterman slot in its own right.
Fire and rain and songcraft
Rolling Stone’s Browne wrote a book (“Fire and Rain”) focusing on the 1970 folk-rock movement led by James Taylor and CSNY.
“Dawes’ use of harmonies is from that sound,” he said. “So is the strummed acoustic instruments, and the emphasis on songwriting. Most indie-rock guys don’t focus on that. Dawes are fascinated by songcraft.”
They’re also conscientious. In March, the band performed 14 gigs over six days at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas.
Goldsmith said that work ethic comes from his dad, Lenny Goldsmith, who fronted Sweathog, a funk-rock band signed to Columbia Records in the early 1970s and now works as a Malibu real estate agent.
“My father instilled this knee-jerk reaction to never saying ‘No’ or canceling anything,” Goldsmith said. “While other friends were learning power chords, he pushed us to get a thorough understanding of theory and how music works. A lot of people will poke fun at us for being the most busy band they know. We happen to like working.”
Formed in 2009 after the dissolution of their previous, punkier high-school band Simon Dawes (named after the Goldsmiths’ grandfather), the group learned about the music biz by releasing two albums on Dave Matthews’ ATO Records.
Goldsmith and his bandmates — Griffin Goldsmith, 22; co-founding bassist Wylie Gelber, 25; and Tay Strathairn, 31, who recently took over the keyboard slot — created a buzz, especially in the Twin Cities, which is by far their biggest market. While they haven’t scored any big hits or big gigs, they have gradually raised their profile with TV appearances, including an episode of NBC’s “Parenthood” in February where they played themselves.
Praise from Dylan
In April, Dawes released their third album, “Stories Don’t End,” on their own label, Hub. It’s selling faster than the previous one, 2011’s “Nothing Is Wrong.”
Goldsmith says his songwriting has evolved, adding such techniques as modulation and minor-4 chords. And as a lyricist, he feels that he’s outgrown the folk-music touchstones of sunsets, mountains and pine trees, not that he’s distancing himself from his old material.
“I wanted to carve a little deeper into things that felt more real in my life,” he said. “Like you might hear a Warren Zevon song talk about entropy or something that might not seem lyrical or poetic right away.”
Recorded in Asheville, N.C., with producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Norah Jones, Of Monsters and Men, Tom Waits), “Stories Don’t End” is Dawes’ most uptempo, energetic record, the bandleader insists — even if many fans claim it’s the mellowest.
“After they hear the songs live, they won’t say that. It’s by no means a mellow experience,” said Goldsmith, pointing that he’s just as influenced by Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones as by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. “On record, we keep it a little tighter, we restrain ourselves a little more.”
To promote the new album this spring, Dawes opened for Dylan for a month, mostly on college campuses.
“It was everything we hoped it would be. He was really mysterious and private, which is OK because I feel like he goes beyond the rock-star thing,” Goldsmith said. “Even with the biggest of rock stars, you’ll typically find some footage of them somewhere where you realize this is a regular guy, a family man who has to be another person onstage. With Dylan, he’s Bob Dylan onstage and offstage. It’s really a trip to witness this 360-degree commitment to the show, the craft, the writer, the art — whatever you want to call it — firsthand.”
Near the end of that tour stint, Dylan came up to Dawes, offered his thanks and praise, especially for their song “A Little Bit of Everything.”
There were no photos or autographs. Not with Fogerty or Robertson, either, though Mr. Creedence gave Dawes a thank-you note.
“If I were to let the fanboy in me come out next to John Fogerty, I think I’d just be a bundle of nerves. He wouldn’t feel comfortable,” Goldsmith said. “It’s like when those guys played with their heroes. It’s like: ‘I’m here to prove that I can be here, that it wasn’t a mistake inviting me.’ ”
So Dawes just acted like they belonged — because they do.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719