Art deco chandeliers dip and dangle overhead Petaluma, California’s century old Mystic Theatre, as cohorts of hirsute hipsters scrupulously surveyed the venue’s ancient crimson walls. Gliding modestly onto the stage, Blitzen Trapper singer/songwriter Eric Earley is met by an oscillating sea of contraband lighters and an easily identifiable sweet, pungent aroma. Offering a brief salute to his fans, Earley kicked his head back, sending jet-black waves into a turbulent jiggle beneath a moldy baseball cap, and strapped on his Gibson SG.
Kicking off the set to drummer Brian Koch’s rhythmic avalanche and a fuzzy slide guitar on “Might Find It Cheap,” Earley joyously exposed that fallacy of the complementary lunch: “Oh ‘ya might find it cheap / But you’re never gonna find it ‘fer free!” Segueing into “Fletcher,” a tune preoccupied with morbid fatalism, Blitzen Trapper vied to keep an inebriated curmudgeon out of driver’s seat amidst unsettling mandolin lines and the vintage Silvertone of lead guitarist Erik Menteer.
Throughout their set, the Portland natives sipped bottles of Lagunitas IPA, brewed right here in Petaluma, expressing their gratitude for this chance to drink “straight from the teat.” Drenched in warming harmonies, “My Home Town,” an idyllic tribute to a place where class distinction melts away in the face of naturalistic beauty, gave way to deconstructed finger picking, gently clinking tambourine, and the elegantly swirling Nord Electro keyboard of versatile multi-instrumentalist Marty Marquis on “Girl In A Coat.”
Presenting a phantasmagoria of transient fragments on “American Goldwing,” Early recounts an exodus from the death grip of modern society, as he delivered a rebellious: “We ride these waters dark and dusty / ‘Cause the city ain’t no place to hide.” Expanding on this impulse to escape from a stifling urban landscape, “Astronaut” chronicled a quest for anonymity atop funky guitar hooks. But the search is in vain, and ends with Earley cringing as he fails to escape familiar foes.
Commenting that they were starting to “feel just a little bit funny” courtesy of Petaluma’s “strange brand of incense,” the band sang of a relationship lost to cool disregard and a perverse fetish for the unattainable. On “Love The Way You Walk Away,” Menteer’s riffs shot out from behind Earley’s vocals, as we are burdened with a paradoxical and damning wisdom: “The old joke stands ‘cause its true I guess / That when you get what your lookin’ for ‘ya want it less.” Set to a bluesy harmonica, emphatic stomping, and Michael VanPelt’s throbbing bass, “Your Crying Eyes” channeled the carefree nonchalance of Blitzen Trapper’s exuberant LP Wild Mountain Nation.
From the harmonica-drenched ditties off animalistic Furr to Wild Mountain Nation’s electric rockers, the Portland veterans dug deep into its diverse catalog, delighting the hundreds in attendance. Closing out with a pulverizing, visceral cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Time Bad Time,” the Portland band sent their fans into a fit of delirium, as those in attendance begged and pleaded for more.
Greeting the Mystic with wide smiles and affectionate waves, country/folk quartet Dawes blessed the Friday night crowd with impeccable vocals and radiant, molten jams. Riding high on three years’ of rave reviews, Dawes attribute their success to enhanced comfort on stage, refined instrumental chops, and solidified three-part harmonies.
Following some quick introductions, mid-tempo “The Way You Laugh,” a poignant expression of love, grit, and perseverance, featured front man Taylor Goldsmith’s focused stare contrasting soft, gentle guitar lines. On “That Western Skyline,” a country ballad of geographic transience and the curse of bad luck, Goldsmith mourned, “All the snow fall this time of year, it’s not what Birmingham is used to / I get the feeling that I brought it here.” Eyes brimming with regret and suffering, Goldsmith, pointing to the heavens, belted a gospel infused, “But I watch her father preach on Sundays / and all the hymnals of my heart.”
Red faced, veins straining against his forehead on “When My Time Comes,” Taylor Goldsmith recaptured the profound ex post facto enlightenment of Dylan’s post-protest awakening, “So I pointed my fingers, and shout a few quotes I knew / as if something that’s written should be taken as true.” Yet Dawes finds little solace in the company of misery. Taylor Goldsmith, turning his microphone to the audience, calls for the auxiliary. The crowd, ecstatic at the prospect of indulging their heroes, blasted the anthemic chorus, “When my time comes / Ooooooh Oh / Ooooooh Oh Oh.”
Noting that they rarely have the chance to play “So Well” in front of a live audience, Dawes jumped into the nostalgic folk-rock number that showcased drummer Griffin Goldsmith’s emerging vocal prowess and keyboardist Tay Strathairn’s harmonizing. Closing out their set with “Time Spent In Los Angeles” off sophomore LP Nothing Is Wrong, Goldsmith wed crystal clear vocals and twangy Fender with heart wrenching three-part harmonies. Beginning with a wallowing electric guitar, drummer Griffin Goldsmith’s emphatic punch quickly pushed the track forward alongside Wylie Gelber’s steady, smooth bass lines. The singer pines for a girl that’s “got that special kind of sadness / that tragic set of charms / that only comes from time spent in Los Angeles.” This pain-ridden yet inexplicably hopeful ditty reaches a crescendo with Taylor Goldsmith yearning for his sullen hometown sweetheart, as the track fades with a bittersweet yank on our heartstrings that only an unresolved love and the velvety, swollen purr of a Hammond organ can convey. Though the budding California quartet’s gushing nostalgia may seem premature, this ballad of geographic transience is altogether fitting given their grueling touring schedule since the release of North Hills in 2009.
Immediately clear is that Dawes has evolved a rare communicative language that enables personality and deep sentiment to engulf its music while still preserving a spontaneous, youthfully exuberant vibe. According to the band, their first LP, North Hills, reflects a softer, greener band that had yet to embark on a national tour. The new record is “more like a live band, featuring a higher level of energy,” strong low range vocal contributions from Griffin Goldsmith, and lyrically dramatic imagery bringing to mind that freewheeling ‘60s Laurel Canyon vibe. Just the first gig of a seven-week national co-headlining tour, Blitzen Trapper and Dawes rocked the Mystic Theatre -celebrating its centennial this year- from hardwood floorboards to geometrically patterned antique chandeliers. Though the rest of the tour hangs in the balance, this opening performance sure got things started on both of the right two feet.