Dawes brings its musical journey to The Pabst Theater
You look like one of them
But you talk like one of us
Babe I think you know where you belong
The Malibu-based band Dawes appears to be talking about itself in this cut from its latest release, "One of Us," as it also took a while for the band to find where it belonged. Literally formed out of jam sessions with Benmont Trench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Chris Robinson (Black Crowes) and Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), the group first found its footing as the pop band Simon Dawes before developing its current rootsy brand and down-to-earth feel.
After a couple of lightly received pop-flavored albums, the band – which was named for principles Billy (Simon) Mills and Taylor (Dawes) Goldsmith – reached a stop point.
"We were living in a band house in the valley. Blake decided he didn't want to tour as much, and it was time for a change," recalled bassist Wylie Gelber, who stayed on through the change.
Goldsmith recruited his little brother, Griffin, on drums, and the band added a keyboard player which resulted in a hard shift in sound. The rockers backed off the clean melodies and catchy hooks in favor of a roots folk blend, much more along the lines of Wilco, War on Drugs and Blitzen Trapper.
"If I had an elevator pitch, I would simply say we are a rock and roll band – guitar, bass, drums and harmonies," Gelber explained. "The genre changes, but we try to keep it true to what we are."
Currently touring behind 2016's "We're All Going To Die," Dawes' upcoming Milwaukee show on Tuesday night returns them to the friendly confines of The Pabst Theater after playing four times at the Turner Hall Ballroom prior. The show is billed as "An Evening with Dawes" with no opener, allowing the band to showcase its brand in full.
Dawes will get their chance to showcase a bit as well throughout the summer and fall as they are playing a combo of full shows, festivals and opening gigs for Kings of Leon and John Mayer. Speaking before a show at another classic venue – the Ogden Theater in Denver – Gelber talked about the differences in show prep.
"We've been able to open for Willie (Nelson) and Jackson (Browne), and we will consider (the audience) when we're putting together a 45-minute set," he explained. "But we have five full albums of material, and playing ballads that fit the venue or trying to reach the last person in an outdoor amphitheater are much different experiences."
The band has charted consistently as folk: 2011's "Nothing is Wrong" made it to No. 5, "Stories Don't End" registered at No. 3 in 2013, and then it hit back-to-back number ones with "All Your Favorite Band" in 2015 and the latest, "We're All Going to Die." The camaraderie and collaboration with other musicians is evident in several ways on that latest release. It signaled the return of Billy Mills as producer, which added a more mainstream accessibility, and a writing partner that Taylor Goldsmith hadn't had in the previous few albums.
The rounding of the sound is evident on the single "Roll With the Punches," where they recruited actress Mandy Moore and Jess Wolfe of Lucius to provide backing vocals. Another lively cut, "When the Tequila Runs Out," features the likes of Jim Keltner (Traveling Wilburys), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes).
"Being in Los Angeles has some built in advantages in terms of having guests," Gelber said, explaining the difference between this and previous albums, which were recorded in Nashville and North Carolina. "With so many musicians living here, or passing through, organizing appearances is easier."
Dawes has been known to cover a variety of songs, including one-offs from Paul Simon, Warren Zevon and Little Feat. However, it has a few that have worked their way into rotation like The Waterboys' "Fisherman Blues" – my favorite – and another from the critically acclaimed Middle Brothers, "Million Dollar Bill." Not all great ideas, however, work out the way the rockers expected.
"There are plenty that don't make the cut. We tried out a Tears for Fears song at a sound check. That's about as far as it went," Gelber recalled, adding, "We have been lucky to back a bunch of artists along the way. A lot of times, when we play one of their songs, it's almost like were now a part of it as well."
While the band's music can carry itself, the absence of a hit or signature song doesn't seem to drive or direct their sound. "Sometimes we will add a little poppy idea and trying new ideas, but if it's lacking something musically, we won't go with it," said Gelber.
In addition to likely bringing some covers into The Pabst, when the band rolls into town on Tuesday, a "Gelber and Son" decal will adorn Wylie's bass.
"They are homemade. My dad and I do everything from cutting the body, woodwork, wiring and painting," he explained. "I'm working on two now, but with how busy I am, it's hard to get more done to sell or anything like that."
He will give his instrument a great workout as these are two-act shows that can border on three hours. Fans should be ready, as the setlist from the past few shows has shown a wide range of selections. One thing is for sure: In Milwaukee, everyone likes a value, and you're going to get your money's worth Tuesday.
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