Steve Dawson,
(Black Hen, 2011)

Master of the guitar in its various identities, Steve Dawson is a justly respected producer, session player and performer. From his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, he heads the roots label Black Hen, some of whose CDs I have reviewed (favorably) in this space. He also put together a particular favorite of mine, a multi-artist tribute to the Mississippi Sheiks, the 1930s African-American string band, Things About Comin' My Way (2009), which I covered here on 24 April 2010. Nightshade's one non-original is a seriously reworked version of the Sheiks' "Gulf Coast Bay."

On this disc, for good and ill, Dawson comes across equal parts Richard Thompson and Ry Cooder, creating a modern rock sound into which earlier vernacular styles have been integrated. In Thompson's case it's the British folk tradition, which isn't a presence here so much as some of Thompson's dark lyric sensibility. Cooder's electric and acoustic fashioning of a kind of post-blues musical vocabulary is in evidence, as is Cooder's ability to arrange instrumental interactions into distinctive shapes. Dawson's well-nigh perfect slide-guitar sound, particularly in its acoustic manifestation, will give you a nice kind of chill.

In short, in terms of sheer musicality there is much to like. Even so, Nightshade would have been better served, in my opinion, if Dawson hadn't elected to rely so heavily on his own material. At a certain point even a decently crafted rock song begins to sound like a whole lot of other decently crafted rock songs. Nothing here is bad -- Dawson's too good for that -- but not a lot of it hits hard enough to leave much of a dent in memory. "Walk On," for example, is an OK song, but I was shocked when I saw that Dawson had written it. It bears a more than passing resemblance to other songs, none of them especially great, in both melody and concept.

Surely it's significant that the most appealing cut here is the above-mentioned "Gulf Coast Bay," on which Dawson makes contemporary a blues from eight decades ago. In common with Cooder, Dawson finds his strength more in interpretation than in invention. The world suffers no shortage of singer-songwriters, after all. Dawson ought to be better than just another of the breed.

music review by
Jerome Clark

16 April 2011

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