Steve Dawson “Ghosts”

Pravda Records, 2024

Sixth solo album finds former frontman for alternative country band Dolly Varden, confronting the ghosts from his past.

artwork for Steve Dawson album "Ghosts"California-born and a graduate of Berklee College of Music, Steve Dawson has resided in Chicago for over 35 years, (not to be confused with the Canadian songwriter with same name currently living in Nashville), where he has become one of the Windy City’s most respected musicians, fronting bands such as the critically acclaimed alternative country act Dolly Varden. Since the band’s last studio album in 2013 he has split his time between side project Funeral Bonsai Wedding, which has spawned two albums, and his solo career of which this new release is his sixth album to date, whilst teaching songwriting and guitar at the ‘Old Town School Of Music’ in Chicago,

“Ghosts” comprises of ten new songs and marks a distinct departure from his previous album “At The Bottom Of A Canyon In The Branches Of A Tree”,(2021), where Dawson played all the instruments and sang all the parts. For this new album he has recruited some of Chicago’s finest musicians to create a distinctly broader pallet with a real band vibe running through its grooves. Lyrically the narrative has a collective focus that thematically links the tracks together, that of confronting the ghosts of the past, though each song tells its own story and stands on its own merits.

The opening track ‘Time To Let Some Light In’, finds Dawson claiming that “the past is gone”, but in truth spends the bulk of the album contradicting that statement, while the song itself with its smooth laid back sixties R&B groove offers just the right amount of nostalgia for a narrative that tussles between anger and optimism from verse to chorus. That Juxtaposition continues on track two ‘Oh California’, with its sweet harmonies, supplied here by Nora O’Connor, and west coast melody contrasting with the dark lyrical theme of childhood memories that refuse to remain buried. The reflective ‘Walking Cane’, showcases some wonderful pedal steel from Brian Wilkie, that in truth emanates across the whole album, in a style reminiscent of the recently departed legend David Lindley and, here particularly, draws comparison to Jackson Browne. ‘Sooner Than Expected’, has a similar vibe, a song inspired in part by the increasingly evident climate change, along with the sudden death from Covid of Dawson’s brother-in-law, that again draws favourable comparison to Browne both within the lyrical narrative and vocal delivery.

One of the clear advantage in bringing on board such quality musicians to record this album is highlighted by the diverse musical styles on offer. With Gerald Dowd on drums and bassist John Abbey, who along with Dawson co-produced the album, there is an intuitive musical connection that underpins all these tracks, while the addition of Chris Greene on saxophone and John Moore on trumpet help add a kaleidoscope of colour. This variety is seen to good effect on the following two numbers ‘Leadville’, that rocks out like something Jason Isbell might have written during his time with the Drive By Truckers, full of angst against both the political situation in the United States, along with the racism and hypocrisy of ‘Christian Values’, while ‘It Was A Mistake’, is reminiscent of Ray Charles with its soulful lament augmented wonderfully by the horn section.

Dawson’s longest musical collaboration has been with his wife Diane Christiansen whose wonderful harmony vocals are seen to great effect on the uplifting ‘I Am Glad To Be Alive’ and the achingly beautiful ‘When I Finally Let You Down’, the latter featuring some sublime piano playing from Alton Smith. The heartstrings continue to be pulled right to the final track ‘Weather In The Desert’, where Dawson opens up about his difficult relationship with his mother who after a lifetime battling addiction to alcohol, cigarettes, and pills, died of complications from diabetes in 2003. There are no punches pulled here, no sweetening of the pill, ghosts haunt every line of regret. The sadness is made all the more greater by the sudden and unexpected death of Ingrid Graudins whose angelic harmonies on the outro had been added only days before, creating a whole different level of poignancy. The album is dedicated in her memory.

With “Ghosts”, Dawson has delivered one of his finest albums to date, full of thoughtfully constructed narratives reflecting his own personal journey, either first hand or witnessed, but always with a visceral intimacy that draws the listener in, while the quality of the supporting cast of musicians supply the perfect conduit for the individual storylines to inhabit. The past is gone. Long live the past.

8/10
8/10

About Graeme Tait 130 Articles
Hi. I'm Graeme, a child of the sixties, eldest of three, born into a Forces family. Keen guitar player since my teens, (amateur level only), I have a wide, eclectic taste in music and an album collection that exceeds 5.000. Currently reside in the beautiful city of Lincoln.
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