It's one thing to channel the cool, dusty, boots-and-aviators California country rock of the '70s, filtered through a 21st-century aesthetic. It’s really something to effortlessly evoke that Laurel Canyon sound (the stomping grounds of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Gram Parsons and Crosby, Stills and Nash, among others) and then temper it with punk sensibilities. It's another thing, all together, to be the band Robbie Robertson (of The Band) calls up when he needs some backing for his first album in more than a decade.
"I grew up watching The Last Waltz about a thousand times before I was ever in a band," says bassist Wylie Gelber, who's been with Dawes since the L.A.-based Americana group was cutting its teeth as high-school rockers Simon Dawes. "It's a crazy surreal experience when you're waiting in the rehearsal room and all of a sudden Robbie Robertson walks in. The whole thing was pretty mind-blowing."
Dawes squeezed in two shows with Robertson and hopes to do more at some point, but in reality, it’s Dawes' nonstop touring schedule that makes side projects tricky. Like a few shows with Jackson Browne, who also appeared on the band's latest album, Nothing Is Wrong.
"He's a mastermind," says Gelber. And, despite Browne’s iconic status, "He was actually one of the nicest people I've met in my entire life. When it got down to it, all of us in the room hanging out, he couldn't have been a nicer, more down-to-earth, ask-him-anything, super-awesome guy."
But back to the aptly named Nothing Is Wrong. The album opens with a panoramic sweep of guitars and hints of organ before lead singer/songwriter Taylor Goldsmith comes in, his vocal as comfortable as a pair of faded Levi’s. There's something about the California country-rock sound: You know it right away, from the lap steel and laid-back percussion to the sun-drenched lyrics that recall The Eagles, dusty cowboy boots and desert sunsets. But Nothing is even more immediate, more instantly familiar.
Dawes recorded its debut album North Hills before the band ever went on tour, says Gelber. He calls that album a slow burn. When the band went on the road, people told them the live show sounded completely different than the record. With Nothing, they "tried to split the difference. That helped with people being able to catch on to it a little earlier," says Gelber.
Live performances of Nothing were arranged on tour (because, like “Time Spent in Los Angeles” suggests, "These days my friends don't seem to know me without my suitcase in my hand," Dawes is rarely not on tour). "It was the opposite of North Hills. The arrangements were based on being played in front of people rather than just being played in a room," says Gelber. "It definitely seems to make a difference. When people hear the record and then see us live, it's not as much of a disconnect."
According to Gelber, musicians assume they can predict the one track that everyone's going to want to hear live. "You go out and play and hear people request songs, and it's cool that they're requesting a little bit of everything," he says. One of Gelber's favorites is "So Well," which he describes as "a deeper cut for people who are into a slow jam."
Really, there's not much about Nothing that feels like a deep cut. It's an open book of an album, an easy reveal with its unhurried two-steps, roadhouse piano parts, heart-on-sleeve references to California landscapes and wisdom beyond the band's collective years. Sure, contributions from seasoned musicians couldn't have hurt. (In addition to Browne's vocals, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played keys.)
Gelber seems more concerned with introducing his heroes to a new audience. "Unfortunately, there are so many people in my generation who may not know Jackson Browne," he says. Those music fans may know the big hits like "Running on Empty" and "Doctor My Eyes," but Gelber says that to look at Browne's catalog and how true he's stayed to himself over the years, and then to get to play with him, "was insanely special."
Something else that's special to Dawes: visiting Asheville. Which is a good thing, since their co-bill with Blitzen Trapper at the Orange Peel this week will be the band's third stop through town since May (they supported Brett Dennen this spring, then returned in the summer to open for Alison Krauss & Union Station at Biltmore Estate). Dawes has already dropped by Echo Mountain to record a Daytrotter session; this time around the band hopes to spend a day just exploring. "It's one of our favorite places in the whole country," Gelber says. "We were even talking about moving there. We're like, 'What's wrong with it? Nothing is wrong with this town.'"
Because, after all, Nothing Is Wrong is the theme, after all.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Blitzen Trapper and Dawes co-bill (with Smoke Fairies)
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday, Oct. 21 (9 p.m., $15 advance or $17 at the door. http://theorangepeel.net)