Steve Dawson has a nice way with opening lines that make you want to find out what happens next.
Why, for example, did his great-grandfather leave Saskatchewan for California? And exactly what kind of trouble did the twins next door foment in Del Mar 76? If what follows after the scene setting can sometimes be quite prosaic – his great grandfather appears to have wanted nothing more than to feel the sun and smell the sea – there's a melodic strength to Dawson's songwriting that can be quite compelling.
Dawson and his wife, Diane Christiansen, are two-fifths of Chicago alt-country band Dolly Varden, and it was this pared-down duo format, assisted at either end of their set by Iain Sloan of Edinburgh Americana band the Wynntown Marshals on Telecaster and pedal steel guitars, who represented the group in this intimate, almost house concert-like setting.
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As Mayfly from the latest Dolly Varden album, For a While, makes clear, Dawson and Christiansen have been together for a good long time – 20 years and counting – and it shows in their singing partnership. They complement each other well and leave each other room to manoeuvre as the songs move from country-style duets to tougher, rocking rhythms punched out on Dawson's acoustic guitar and occasionally embellished with Christiansen's simple but effective melodica playing.
In a set that drew on popular back catalogue items as well as new material, the sensitive Simple Pleasure, delivered as a duo, and the more urgent Walking the Chalk Line Again, with Sloan adding deft touches, caught the ear especially alongside the lived-in comfort of One Thousand Brilliant Prizes.