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Dawes at Higher Ground, South Burlington, VT

Doug Collette By

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Higher Ground
South Burlington, VT
July 21, 2015

Dawes is making up for lost time in 2015. The Los Angeles-based band reasserted themselves as recording artists in the studio with All Your Favorite Bands (Hub Records, 2015) and is now taking the next logical step in their development as a performing unit. In doing so, the group is enhancing an abiding and honest connection with their followers that justified Dawes' position as headliners this mid-summer night (their previous appearance in 2012 found them opening for, and practically stealing the show from, Brett Dennen).

Guitarist Duane Betts, the son of estranged Allman Brothers guitarist Dicky, is acting as catalyst for this evolution of Dawes live. Standing off to stage right, he kept a low profile during the opening numbers including, notably, new numbers "Things Happen" and "Don't Send Me Away," seeming to prefer listening and getting a feel for the night before asserting himself. And assert himself, he did with an abrupt shout-out from frontman guitarist and vocalist Taylor Goldsmith on "Just Below the Surface:" as with each of his successive spotlights during the two hour-plus set, Betts channeled all the passion within the song during his time in the (often belated) spotlight. His intensity, not surprisingly, fired up the audience, increasingly more as the night went on, so that they anticipated his solos with obvious relish: as much as he sounded like a natural guitarist, Duane Betts' understated stage presence only illuminates the elevated level of his musicianship.

The crowd comfortably filling the larger of Higher Ground's two rooms this late July night were clearly devoted Dawes fans. The attendees moved closer to the stage with each successive number and, as a display of their respectful and honest appreciation of the band (in addition to the obvious absence of much overt cell phone usage), hushed themselves to pay rapt attention to Goldsmith's elocution of his finely wrought lyrics and emotive delivery on "A Little Bit of Everything" Even the bar-tending staff lined up as if at attention at one point.

The relative quiet at such junctures was even more striking in contrast to the resonating boom of the band from the very outset of the night. The rhythm section, in fact, commanded attention right away, bassist Wylie Gelber and drummer Griffin Goldsmith locked together and played with an assertive punch that, as much as what Betts adds to the Dawes' live sound, is indicative of the direction in which the band's moving. And transparent as was the first song Taylor's brother sang, "How Far We've Come," it was as well-placed as it was astutely chosen: no longer just a polite albeit erudite folk-rock band, Dawes is now a tighter ensemble than ever, playing with plenty of muscle.

Not that they've abandoned the style at the roots of their music. The group skillfully utilizes conventional song structure to temper the combination of intelligence and emotion in a song such as "If I Wanted Someone. " Such economy is also testament to the discipline and restraint in the carefully devised arrangements of material as "Time Spent in Los Angeles" and "From The Right Angle" (which Taylor Goldsmith explained had its finishing touches applied on the very stage they occupied this mid-summer night).

And, as often as not, Dawes' chief songwriter utilized his own lead guitar playing, in its own way as articulate as his song lyrics, to set things up for Duane Betts: on "From a Window Seat" late in the set, the latter took his cue to ratchet up the intensity in such a way it clearly illustrated that the difference in their respective styles is a microcosm of the band's overall progression

It was no surprise Dawes played an extended encore at Higher Ground, but opening the four-song sequence with Billy Joel's "Big Shot," sung with much gusto by drummer Goldsmith, might've seemed curious had it not been so evident this was means for the quintet to simply play for the fun of it. In so doing, they echoed the lighthearted tone set by taking the stage to the theme of "Ghostbusters."

The gentle crescendos of the instruments at the start of the set might well have been designed to apply focus to the keyboards of Tay Straitharn, especially acoustic piano and organ, that added so much color during the course of the evening. And Dawes never seemed ponderous anyway because they eschew melodrama, even if the other cover they played this night, The Waterboys' "Fisherman's Blues." radiated all the stately panache its author Mike Scott might want.


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