The Truth About the Cats in Dawes
Leaving Miami for Fort Lauderdale is always a dicey proposition. First, there’s the nosebleed one risks when crossing north over the Dade and Broward County lines. Then there’s the mix of shit-kickers and retirees one sees zooming and putt-putting along I-95, respectively. Mostly though, it seems the further one gets from the MIA, the whiter things become. Is it a whiter shade of pale? You betcha. And then some.
There are, however. some good things to be said about night-tripping north, among them the esthetically-pleasing Au-Rene Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Located at the west end of the action that takes place along Himmarshee Street and Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, just steps away from the meandering New River, this rather grand venue is most often a home to touring Broadway shows. The Au-Rene does, however, occasionally double as a live music venue, and when it does, it does with much aplomb. It was there that I saw Captain & Tennille way back in the ’90s (really). And it was there that I caught Dawes.
The truth about the cats in Dawes is elegantly simple, and it has nothing to do with a same-named California town, Nebraska county, or Australian state. Neither does it concern the Dawes Act (named for Massachusetts Senator Henry L.), the Dawes Plan (named for Vice President Charles G.), or the Dawes Commission (which allotted land to the Five Civilized Tribes). Finally, Wiki-fed critics to the contrary, it has absolutely nothing to do with what’s known as the Laural Canyon sound.
“We recorded our first album there,” said Taylor Dawes Goldsmith, from whom the band actually gets its name, of the famed Los Angeles-area musical hot spot. “That’s it. We don’t live there. We didn’t live there. And it’s unlikely we ever will live there. We’re more East LA types.”
Truth be told, I initially fell for the falsehood as well, going so far as to request a review copy of Michael Walker’s robust Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood (Faber & Faber, $15). When I mention how far I went with my mistake, Taylor’s brother Griffin Goldsmith tells me Dawes is “mentioned in the book.” But when I ask if they’d gazed out from Lookout Mountain, whether to see the stars or otherwise, Taylor answers with an unequivocal, “No. But we do like to hear the stories.” De facto birthplace of such ’60s and ’70s mainstays as The Mamas & the Papas and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, as well as home to everybody from Jim Morrison to Frank Zappa (who occupied the log cabin once owned by legendary silent screen cowboy Tom Mix), Laurel Canyon (and Laurel Canyon) is bursting with story all right. Mostly though, it’s the story of a certain singer-songwriter sound epitomized by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. And while Dawes’ ties to said phenomena are mostly coincidental, there is an aural through-line. Why else would Jackson Browne select the band to back him on a recent tour of Spain?
“That came about through our producer Jonathan Wilson,” says Taylor, “who’s tight with Benji Hughes. Jackson really likes Benji’s music; says it reminds him a lot of Warren Zevon, and through that they became friends. When Jonathan told Jackson we were looking for a place to mix the new record, Jackson offered us his studio. Then, when we did a show at the Troubadour, Jonathan and Jackson sat in with us on a cover of Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Apparently Jackson liked how it turned out, because the next day he called Jonathan and said ‘let’s all go to Spain!'”
Browne isn’t the only legendary songwriter to want to stage with the LA-based quartet (which is rounded out by Wylie Gelber and Tay Strathairn). The Band’s Robbie Robertson also selected them to serve as his own backing band for a series of television appearances, which says as much about their inherent sound as it does their musicianship. Steeped in a history that includes the fusion of Miles Davis and the prog pop of Steely Dan, not to mention the brassy sheen of Tower of Power (which was fronted by Taylor and Griffin’s father Lenny Griffith), the cats in Dawes are players of true and reverent proportion.
That talent is evidenced throughout their latest LP, Nothing is Wrong, which harks back not just to Laurel Canyon, but to the whole of Los Angeles, then and now. That said, there’s also something universal about the sound that translates well beyond the West Coast. At the Au-Rene, before a packed house primarily there to see headliner Alison Krauss, Dawes delivered a six-pack on song that left the crowd completely awed. Geography aside, that’s the real truth about the cats in Dawes.