Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: John Margaretten
Dawes & The Moondoggies :: 11.20.10 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA
Organized religion is a psychological hornet's nest built on hierarchies, fairytales and guilt grafted onto basically good ideas. At the core of most of the world's major spiritual practices is the notion that human beings are flawed and must atone to a creator that we disappoint on a daily basis. It's a lousy setup, especially for highly individualized folks given to questioning stated truths and power structures. Still, it'd be a lie to suggest that there isn't an ache inside all of us for greater meaning, a larger sense of the universe and one's place in it, not to mention a hope – however mustard seed small – that compassion, kindness and love are stronger than all the dark forces that seem to hold sway so many places. This ache need not lead one to "God" or anything like it, but it hums in our skulls when night comes and the day's crush and chatter subsides. So, where then does one turn to slake this ontological thirst? Where do doubters and cynics gather to bolster their spirits?
|Dawes :: 11.20.10 by John Margaretten|
One potential answer could be found at The Independent, where two bands that dig their hands deep into this rich, complex mulch put on a concert that was as close to holy as rock 'n' roll can manage. Los Angeles-based Dawes and Seattle's The Moondoggies each delivered everything a four-piece combo can in terms of spirit and skill on a rain dappled autumn evening, each proving painfully honest and resoundingly hopeful, not to mention dead solid songwriters, performers and musicians. When churches and temples prove unfriendly to modern people it's left to other avenues to nourish us in ways that go beyond entertainment. Each group put on a fine rock show, but if you slipped off your armor and bared your breast to them then something more occurred this night, something all the outstretched arms and heaven-reaching singing in the crowd testified to – something rare from bands that have only a handful of recordings and a few years under their belts, but such is the immediate, tangible power and grace of what they do.
Taking us "way out in the tidelands" and probing complex notions like "what's exactly inside a man," The Moondoggies played first, their cracking good rhythm team – bassist Robert Terreberry and drummer Carl Dahlen - actively reaching out and sucking one into their cavernous, harmonious spaces. There's something of vintage CSNY and the 1970s Laurel Canyon bunch to them, but stripped of the hippie drippiness and lackadaisical jamming. Their inquiry is pointed and their songwriting melodic and free of much fat, often settling into a riff or refrain because it needs repeating for proper impact - one of the basic truths of the blues or classic folk often overlooked in contemporary rock. Drawing heavily from their ace sophomore album Tidelands (released October 12 on Hardly Art/Sub Pop), the set was infused with gospel-like energy set free of holy book brow beating. Not to overplay a metaphor, but their music held an oceanic pull to it – horizon filling, elemental, natural. More than once I kept conversations at bay as the audience grew throughout their hour onstage so I might focus and absorb everything they were laying down.
|The Moondoggies :: 11.20.10 by John Margaretten|
At the heart of The Moondoggies' music lies the songwriting and open-wound voice of Kevin Murphy, who repeatedly succeeds in pulling the veils off commonly held illusions, revealing what's really going on rather than what we think is happening. The others in the band, rounded out by keyboardist Caleb Quick, delivered harmonies that brought their live presence up to the high standards of their studio recordings. As the lights came up one felt they'd witnessed a wonderful group of searchers that handcraft music as a walking stick for a journey that won't be long or easy. But, when they cried, "Wake up, wake up, let me drink from your cup," the sense was that they would not go thirsty or without friends wherever they might wander, reminding us that "man ain't meant to crawl/ feel like he's nothing at all" and delivering music of utter conviction that's truly uplifting.
Normally I wouldn't envy a headliner having to follow such a set but Dawes is no normal headliner. Despite having just one album to their name – the tremendous North Hills (JamBase review) – Dawes is rapidly building a cult following whose eyes burn bright, a chorus of ragged voices grown hoarse but happy by show's end. I caught a glimpse of this fervor at Outside Lands this past summer but it was a pale shadow of the ecclesiastical bent of The Independent crowd. Looking around at the number of people who knew every line, even to the unreleased tunes, one felt they were in on the ground floor of something big, something rising in the same way as past greats like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, and their performance backed up this impression in every way.
The lightning rod in Dawes is singer-songwriter-guitarist Taylor Goldsmith, a future legend in the making possessed of abundant charisma, a heartbreaking voice capable of roaring power, and a knack for nuances that ensnare an audience – sly grins, hip swivels and pauses and conscious tics that punctuate the already great music in ways that make one hoot and connect with the moment at hand. Shoulder-to-shoulder with him are Tay Straithairn (piano, keys), Griffin Goldsmith (drums) and Wylie Gelber (bass), who serve this music with immaculate intuition, taking possession of it and delivering fine performance after fine performance. Yes, they are a new, quite young band but it feels like they're in for the long haul – in a number of ways. These songs are not passing fancies. They are streetwise hymns to haunt our ear buds and solitary listening time, and then later enjoyed in good company with our fellow travelers, glasses and spirits raised high as Dawes drives us into fevered jubilee. Reflective music – and Dawes surely makes that sort – is rarely well served in the live setting, but this band makes it work in spades. In fact, the band-audience synergy with Dawes is one of the most striking I've ever encountered, and again, only seems to be the tip of the iceberg.
|Dawes :: 11.20.10 by John Margaretten|
Like The Moondoggies, they hit all their marks, building on the sturdy bones in their songbook but not settling for an "okay" rendition when they might blow the doors off the joint. From a purely spectator perspective, Dawes is a goddamn blast to watch. The battle scarred instruments and lunging energy onstage speak to guys willing to do the miles and club crawling to forge something solid and lasting. The new songs in SF were uniformly excellent and worthy additions to the eleven gems on their debut, and one suspects there's a pile more waiting in the wings. One killer had this memorable couplet: "If I wanted someone to cut me down/ I'd have handed you the blade/ I want you to make the days move easy." Zing!
Things built to a heady pitch with set closing "When My Time Comes," where the whole audience seemed to inch forward, pulled in by the song's gravity and the band's searing, absolutely engaging playing. It is a tremendous tune, a balm for those of us who've lived "less like a workhorse and more like a slave." The struggle of existence and the inevitable end that awaits us all writhes inside this one, and you could see a number of folks breaking through to something unspoken and perhaps unspeakable as they pitched in on the intentionally rhetorical chorus. Who's to say what will happen when their time comes? Isn't it better to leave the question mark hanging flagrantly in the air, a cry of "whoa-oa-oa" standing in for certitude as nuggets of wisdom fall from Murphy's lips? "You can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks/ Yes, you can stare into the abyss but its staring right back."
We may understand on an intellectual level that we're all in the same boat but feeling it in your bones is another matter entirely. The combination of Dawes and The Moondoggies made for a community, however briefly gathered, that understood on some level that existence is shared and our dreams and fears are not so different from one another in the final accounting. Most longings are universal and that truth has few better songsmiths and messengers than these two bands at this moment.
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