By Sarah French.
Eyes Closed, Dreaming, the newest album from Steve Dawson is, without reservation, a pinnacle and career highlight for the Nashville-based Canadian musician. With its beautiful melodies, inspired instrumentation and soulful vocal performances, Dawson’s newest music soars effortlessly over the very high bar he’s set for himself over the past three decades. And, when you consider that Eyes Closed, Dreaming is the third record – following Gone, Long Gone and Phantom Telescope - to be released under his name within a year, the phenomenal level of accomplishment that the album represents is thrown into high relief.
The third instalment of Dawson’s ‘pandemic trilogy’ was recorded under lockdown conditions with artists contributing their parts from various corners of Nashville, Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver. As challenging as these restrictions were for an artist like Dawson who has always thrived on the chemistry of creating music live off the floor with musicians rubbing elbows together in the same room, Eyes Closed, Dreaming is as warm and immediate sounding a record as anyone could ever hope to hear.
As usual, Steve has called on a bunch of his very talented pals, selected from a veritable who’s who of North American roots musicians, to help him bring the new songs to life. His old Birds of Chicago partner, Allison Russell contributed some very stirring vocal support on three tracks, while Nashville legends Fats Kaplin and Tim O’Brien keep pace with Dawson, playing mandolin and various strings on several of the album’s most compelling compositions. Legendary LA drummer Jay Bellerose’s signature sound takes the rhythms to a higher level on five tracks with the rock-solid house band of Gary Craig (drums), Jeremy Holmes (bass) as well as Chris Gestrin and Kevin McKendree (keyboards) guiding the music into some very thrilling territory and holding the course for the rest of the musicians. Eyes Closed, Dreaming is rounded out with adventurous string arrangements from Ben Plotnik (viola/violin) and Kaitlyn Raitz (cello) as well as a Stax-inspired horn section recorded mid-pandemic in Vancouver with Jerry Cook, Dominic Conway and Malcolm Aiken. Additional vocal textures were skillfully added by Keri Latimer, and Steve’s daughter Casey Dawson.
Four original songs – ‘The Owl’, ‘A Gift’, ‘Hemingway’ and ‘Polaroid’ - written with Steve’s old friend and Black Hen label-mate, Matt Patershuk form the centerpiece of Eyes Closed, Dreaming and arguably showcase the most compelling performances on the record. Graceful, heartfelt and keenly literate in their observations about love, attainment and the ephemeral nature of time, each is a masterwork of roots music songcraft. Several of the songs tie into the earlier release Gone, Long Gone sonically as well - ‘Hemingway’s' distinct string quartet is a companion piece to the title track from Gone, Long Gone, The horn section on ‘Small Town Talk’ was recorded at the same time as ‘Dimes’ from the same earlier album, and new instrumentals ‘Waikiki Stonewall Rag’ and the Bix Beiderbecke hit ‘Singin’ The Blues’ form a distinct trilogy with the earlier ‘Kalaniapia Waltz’.
As Steve’s listeners have come to expect, Eyes Closed, Dreaming features a tasteful assortment of song interpretations. ‘House Carpenter’ sees Dawson breathing new life into this old ancient ballad in a version that picks up where Bert Jansch and Pentangle left off. With intricate guitar work, sympathetic vocals and a wonderful solo from Tim O’Brien, it’s one of the albums many highlights. Ian Tyson’s classic ‘Long Time to Get Old’ and the Johnny Cash gem ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ (written by Cowboy Jack Clement) shed light on Dawson’s country side while an uplifting interpretation of Bobby Charles’ ‘Small Town Talk’ remind listeners that there’s always been a lot of soul lurking in the undercurrents of Steve’s music. John Hartford’s ode to the quiet heroism of a life dedicated to music, ‘Let Him Go On Mama’, is given a sumptuous solo treatment as Dawson’s Weissenborn guitar defines a seductive path to close out the album.
Beautifully recorded, sensitively arranged and played, Eyes Closed, Dreaming, like all of Steve Dawson’s albums is like a master class in composition, melody and counterpoint. From beginning to end, it is quite simply stunning and almost certainly features the most beautiful and engaging music you’ll hear this year.