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Dawes Brings Laurel Canyon Vibe to the Wiltern with Laid-Back Homecoming Gig: Concert Review

Dawes live 2013 P
Chris Willman

The Bottom Line

L.A.'s favored sons deliver a show that straddles the line between indie acoustics and amphitheater-ready anthems.

Venue

The Wiltern Theatre
Los Angeles
(Friday, Dec. 13)

“I think that love is so much easier than you realize,” sings Taylor Goldsmith in the climactic moment of “A Little Bit of Everything,” a signature song for the band Dawes, ’“If you can give yourself to someone, then you should.” Maybe that boldly romantic advice goes for love of music, too, and if there’s any band worth giving yourself to at the moment, it’s Dawes, whose homecoming show at the Wiltern Friday night gave Angelenos a chance to renew vows with the city’s most crush-worthy current export.

The tag “Americana-folk” still sticks to Dawes like a Minnie Pearl price tag, and they certainly did enough to deserve it on their first two albums, which mesmerized unwitting indie-rock fans with classic virtues that were invariably described as “CSNY-like” because, well, that’s the only band that ever had vocal harmonies, right? Dawes’ acoustic leanings made for a halfway novel calling card on the L.A. scene -- presaging a “back to Laurel Canyon” movement that may have been reality or hype -- but those initial recordings wore their demo-ey gentleness like a badge that was meant to deflect against any charges of commercial ambition. But with their third album, this year’s Stories Don’t End, they’ve grown into their skin as an unabashedly electric, ready-for-the majors band, ready to trade Laurel Canyon for Red Rocks, if there’s even still a market for superior mainstream rock anymore.

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Is there? Hard to tell from the evidence, as Dawes struggles to fill small clubs in some markets, while being hailed as conquering heroes in others, like Nashville, where they recently sold out the Ryman Auditorium well in advance. The Wiltern was a few rows shy of a sellout but still marked the largest hometown show to date for a group that, even locally, doesn’t have an obvious niche to fit into. (Tellingly, the show was sponsored not by too-cool-for-school KCRW but the upstart KCSN, a station that sort of sells neo-mainstream as the new indie.)  If you squinted really hard, they were actually playing the Fabulous Forum. And forget the ‘70s, the era Dawes is most frequently -- and maybe fairly -- tied to. If this were a time when, say, Gin Blossoms still walked the earth, songs like “From the Right Angle,” “Most People,” and the studio version of “Hey Lover” would be huge.

But frontman Goldsmith’s singer/songwriter sensibilities are less Gin Blossoms than Jimmy Webb, with alternating currents of poetic opacity and pure, unbridled emotion that have been the twin hallmark of many a classicist rocker before him. On Dawes’ early records, Goldsmith sounded so smoothed out and unruffled that he bordered on coming off twee, but the latest album’s production lets him sound less bridled. And in person, any milquetoast qualities that you might have taken from the old albums’ meekness disappear. “If I Wanted Something,” which sounded like a folky trifle on 2011’s Nothing is Wrong, comes off as a hard-edged rock classic in the flesh now, with Goldsmith singing “If I wanted someone to clean me up, I’d find myself a maid” like somebody who’s listened to Blood on the Tracks and delivering stinging guitar solos like someone who’s spent a lot of recent time in the company of Crazy Horse.

There is a Bonnaroo-friendly aspect to Dawes, as they stretch out the albums’ fairly compact gems and let Goldsmith prove a capability for soloing you could only guess at from the recordings, even bounding around a bit -- though he hardly otherwise looks the guitar hero, with his Everyman look and sleeves-rolled-up-for-work dress shirt.

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Any jam-band tendencies may have been accentuated a bit Friday by the set-long presence of a guest second guitarist, Blake Mills, who was a co-founding member when the band was formerly known as Simon Dawes back in the mid-2000s. Mills has gone on to stints like being Fiona Apple’s very featured guest on her most recent tour (and has a solo project due in the spring), and he’s just notorious enough that his return to the Dawes fold was a little like Jay Farrar sitting in for an entire Wilco show. If you’ve seen any of Dawes’ other recent shows, you’d have to say that Mills’ presence slowed the set’s momentum, as the handful of contributions the band had him sing tended to be of a slower, rootsier, and less immediately compelling bent. But it did offer a fascinating look at what Dawes might be today if they’d carried on with two frontmen instead of one. Although the sharing led to some dilution of energy, there were surely benefits to having two capable but stylistically distinct lead guitarists trading riifs, as the encore’s lovely closing interplay indicated.

In the end, you don’t really want Goldsmith trading his way out of the spotlight for long. He’s gotten better at bringing out his acerbic side in once-sweet post-breakup ballads like “Coming Back to a Man,” but the singer also has a greater idealism that makes the audience sing-along section of the anthem “When My Time Comes” feel honestly earned. Smart enough to be a cynic but soulful enough to reach for something higher and more elusive -- that’s tough to find these days, so no wonder the band is a favorite of Jackson Browne (who was in the house) and gets called out to open for Dylan. The on-point musicianship of the rest of the crew, including drummer/harmony vocalist/MVP/brother Griffin Goldsmith, seals the deal.

When Goldsmith sings “I think there are a few of us that still belong out on the road,” it’s not meant to be as much of a meta boast as it sounds, coming in the context of a song (“From the Right Angle”) that’s about valuing touring as an escape from relationships. But to the extent that the audience does cheer like it’s intended that way, it’s a deserved brag. When Dawes are out on the road, they’re about the best musical advertisement their hometown currently has for “Time Spent in Los Angeles.”

Set List:

Most People
If I Wanted Someone
Someone Will
Unworthy (Blake Mills song)
Fire Away
Just Beneath the Surface
Something in Common
Hey Lover (Mills)
Don’t Tell Your Friends About Me (Mills)
When My Time Comes
Coming Back to a Man
Curable Disease (Mills)
3 Weeks in Havana (Mills)
From a Window Seat
Bear Witness
It’ll All Work Out (Mills)
A Little Bit of Everything
From the Right Angle

Encore:

Time Spent in Los Angeles
Peace in the Valley

Twitter: @chriswillman

Chris Willman