Less than five minutes before Dawes took the stage at the Kalamazoo State Theatre on the evening of March 18, my brother informed me that Chuck Berry had passed away. Immediately, I knew that news would become the prism through which the entire night would be filtered. When I walked through the doors of the venue I thought I was going to be seeing the act that is, in my humble opinion, the best rock ‘n’ roll band in America right now. By the time Dawes strolled onstage with “Johnny B. Goode” playing over the PA, the narrative was a little different: I was seeing my current favorite rock band on the same day that the guy who invented rock ‘n’ roll breathed his last breath.
If you follow music criticism at all, chances are that you’ve read at least one “rock is dead” thinkpiece in the past three or four years. The people writing those pieces, I am convinced, have never seen Dawes live.
On record, this Los Angeles-based four-piece has often been linked with the folk, Americana, and country scenes—thanks largely to the twangy, Jackson Browne-indebted sound of their first few records. This type of roots-influenced rock is not a fashionable sound among modern music critics, but it’s led to what is, in my mind, the best four-album run any artist has had this decade. Onstage, though, Dawes are a little louder and a little edgier than on record, specializing in high-voltage rock ‘n’ roll made up of extended jam sessions and plenty of heroic guitar solos.
Despite the showiness of the instrumental work, Dawes never make the fatal jam band error of letting their songs get away from them. In addition to being damn good players, these guys also have a knack for writing songs that are catchy, lyrically thoughtful, and innately well-structured. Those qualities are on clear display during An Evening with Dawes, the band’s current headlining tour. On the road in support of their 2016 full-length, We’re All Gonna Die, Dawes have pulled out all the stops. Rather than bringing an opening act on the road, they’ve opted to be the only act on the bill. As a result, concerts on the Evening with Dawes tour revolve around two separate sets—each about 11 or 12 songs long—with an intermission between and an encore to follow. Dawes are also on a mission to play every song on all five of their albums before the tour is out, which means that they’re taking a leaf out of Springsteen’s book and shuffling the setlist a bit each night.
The result is a show that feels loose and fun from first note to last. Just from watching the interplay between the members, it’s pretty clear that these guys are great friends in addition to being bandmates. Brothers Taylor Goldsmith (vocals, guitar) and Griffin Goldsmith (drums, harmonies) anchor the connection, but keyboardist Lee Pardini and bassist Wylie Gelber lock into the chemistry as well. Even touring guitarist Trevor Menear was on point, taking his fair share of the guitar solos and lead guitar lines that Taylor Goldsmith handles on record.
Across their two sets in Kalamazoo, Dawes played 24 songs—25 if you count their jokey recitation of Shel Silverstein’s “Still Gonna Die.” Along the way, there were frankly too many highlights to name them all: the supercharged energy of poppy set opener “One of Us”; the sprawl of “Now That It’s Too Late, Maria,” an epic torch ballad that gradually builds over the course of 10+ minutes and two guitar solos; the raucous “When the Tequila Runs Out,” which plays like a novelty song on record but manifests as a huge crowd singalong live; the tender “A Little Bit of Everything,” one of those songs that never fails to elicit a tear or two when it gets played live; and the kinetic “When My Time Comes,” which took the crowd singalong from “Tequila” and tripled it in volume and intensity. And that’s just the first set!
“If it wasn’t for [Chuck Berry], there wouldn’t be no Rolling Stones, there wouldn’t be no Bob Dylan. It’s pretty easy to see how there therefore wouldn’t be any Dawes.” – Taylor Goldsmith
Late in the show, frontman Taylor Goldsmith referenced the added weight of the evening, paying a brief but heartfelt tribute to Chuck Berry and his influence on rock ‘n’ roll culture. “Indirectly, I feel like he’s responsible for all of us being here tonight,” Goldsmith said in the middle of “Most People,” the climactic moment of set two. “If it wasn’t for him, there wouldn’t be no Rolling Stones, there wouldn’t be no Bob Dylan. It’s pretty easy to see how there therefore wouldn’t be any Dawes.” Other than a few licks of Johnny B Goode, Berry’s signature song, and an honorary “duck walk” around the stage, the tribute didn’t get any more overt than that. However, as Dawes closed their encore with their signature song—a song whose key lyric is “And may all your favorite bands stay together”—you could definitely feel a little bit of extra electricity and emotion in the air. At this point, we’ve lost most of rock’s great pioneers and seen rock ‘n’ roll recede from our culture’s dominant artistic expression to something that mostly exists in the underground. But as long as bands like Dawes are playing these kinds of concerts—these long, epic shows full of emotion and energy—I have a feeling rock ‘n’ roll will be just fine.
Not every band can be Chuck Berry, but thanks to him and the music he pioneered, every kid with a guitar has a chance to get up on a stage somewhere and set the world on fire. That fact is something to be celebrated, and on their current tour, Dawes smartly let the celebration last all night.
- One of Us
- If I Wanted Someone
- Bear Witness
- Right on Time
- Picture of a Man
- Now That It’s Too Late, Maria
- When the Tequila Runs Out
- From a Window Seat
- Less Than Five Miles Away
- A Little Bit of Everything
- When My Time Comes
- Moon in the Water
- Roll Tide
- Hey Lover (Blake Mills cover)
- Don’t Send Me Away
- From the Right Angle
- Time Spent in Los Angeles
- Roll with the Punches
- Things Happen
- Most People
- Still Gonna Die (Shel Silverstein cover)
- We’re All Gonna Die
- Fire Away
- All Your Favorite Bands