It felt like a coming-out party. Sure, healing Dawes has been around for a few years, they’re no strangers to Boston, and yeah they’ve played the Royale at least a couple of times before. But since their last visit here in the fall of 2011, they’ve received an extended rock tutorial from the likes of Bob Dylan, John Fogerty and Jackson Browne. They returned to Boston as headliners, selling out a Friday night show and ready to put all the pieces together. The result was a night that perfectly captured all that live music should be.
Opening act Shovels & Rope got things started a little after 7 p.m. with a rousing, rip-this-joint set that mixed equal parts country, folk, rock and alt-country-rock-folk-indie-Americana (they don’t like to be pigeonholed). The husband-and-wife duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst hails from Charleston, SC, and caught a lot of folk’s attention ‘round these parts when they opened for Jack White at the Agganis Arena last fall.
Trent and Hearst look like they could be a pair of bank robbers from the 1930s, on the run in the dusty heartland with the feds hard on their tail. But instead they chose a life of music. Armed with little more than a couple of guitars and a simple drum kit, they produce a joyful sound. The couple switch off playing drums and guitar, and share vocal duties – at times singing so close to one another at the mic that you think they may need to get a room. Their whole set was solid, but a particular highlight was “Birmingham,” the foot-stomping gem that opens their most recent album and has become an infectious live number.
Dawes hit the stage about an hour later and leapt right in with “From A Window Seat,” the first single off of Stories Don’t End, the group’s third album, released this past April. The tune, like much of Dawes’ songbook, speaks to the loneliness and missed connections that separate us all. Lead singer Taylor Goldsmith has been likened to another laid-back singer-songwriter out of California– Jackson Browne, who has spent a lifetime mining similar themes of isolation and loss. The comparison is not misplaced, as Dawes’ playlist clearly echoes the Laurel Canyon sound that defined an important branch of classic rock in the early 70’s.
But here’s the thing: live on stage, everything about Dawes gets amped up, and even the sad songs become cause for communal celebration. And there was a very communal feel to the whole night at the Royale. There’s a spirit that can overtake a room when a band and an audience are in sync, and both Dawes and the crowd could feel it happening at the Tremont Street club. “Boston really knows how to treat a band,” Goldsmith said at one point.
When he launched into “When My Time Comes,” the audience began singing as fiercely as the band, and the thought occurred that this is what rock and roll is all about: a sweating crowd, packed tight to the stage, singing as one and literally shaking the floor of the 95-year-old opera house (on a good night, you really can feel the floor of the Royale moving).
The set list leaned more toward Stories Don’t End and its predecessor, 2011’s Nothing Is Wrong, than the band’s first release, but there were highlights from all albums over the course of the night: a razor-sharp “From the Right Angle” off the most recent album; “If I Wanted Someone,” “Coming Back to a Man,” and “A Little Bit of Everything” from Nothing Is Wrong; and a stunning “Peace In the Valley,” which featured a pair of soaring solos from Tay Strathairn on keyboards and Goldsmith on guitar.
The band also pulled a pair of covers out of its musical hat, both of which featured drummer Griffin Goldsmith taking a turn on lead vocals. The first was a flawless rendition of Bob Seger’s “We Got Tonight,” which Goldsmith punctuated with a long slug on his beer when he was done. The other was the Traveling Wilbury’s “End of the Line,” which served as the final encore for the night, with Dawes joined on stage by Shovels & Rope’s Trent and Hearst.
Dawes is likely headed for bigger and better things, but it’s hard not to think that their latest stop at the Royale was the kind of show that fans who were there will long remember as one of their best. Shovels & Rope will be back at the same venue in the fall, this time as headliners themselves.