Dawes and Blitzen Trapper in Boston

Matthew Shelter on November 9, 2011

Dawes – photo by Matthew Shelter

Dawes and Blitzen Trapper
Boston, MA
October 28

Dawes and Blitzen Trapper brought their co-headlining show to the Royale in Boston on the last Friday in October, on a bill that also featured up-and-comers The Belle Brigade as opening act. Normally, openers are lucky to get a line or two at the end of a review, but the brother and sister team of Ethan and Barbara Gruska deserve more than that, if only to compensate for having to take the stage at the ungodly hour of 6 pm on a Friday night, when the bartenders have barely finished washing and drying the glassware, and it’s still light outside.

For the uninitiated, The Belle Brigade has been steadily gaining a following this year on the back of their critically acclaimed, self-titled debut album and its breakout track “Losers.” They sampled seven songs from The Belle Brigade, including “Lucky Guy,” “Belt of Orion,” “Where Not To Look For Freedom” and “Rusted Root,” before closing with “Losers.” They are a talented, infectious band to watch, and they’re going places.

Both Dawes and Blitzen Trapper are touring behind strong albums released in recent months – the former’s Nothing Is Wrong and the latter’s American Goldwing – and both bands leaned heavily on tracks from these discs in their Boston show. With his weary stubble and bed-head hair, lead vocalist and guitarist Taylor Goldsmith looks the part of one of the characters in his songs, the guy who’s just been sent packing by his girlfriend but will later find a way to show her how wrong she was. The sweet spot for Dawes is the kiss-off song, the kind of track that Glenn Frey and Don Henley used to reel off for the early Eagles. They opened with two tracks off Nothing Is Wrong, “The Way You Laugh” and “If I Wanted Someone,” and featured five other songs from the new album in their 11-song set. Highlights included “Fire Away,” “So Well,” and “A Little Bit of Everything.” They even threw in a cover of Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome.” Taylor’s brother Griffin Goldsmith – he of the Harpo Marx-hairdo – anchors the band on drums, if you can say someone who can barely sit still behind his drum kit is really “anchoring” anything, and shares in the harmonies. Bassist Wylie Gelber and keyboardist Tay Strathairn round out the quartet.

Blitzen Trapper is a genre-busting band that has been flying just beneath the mainstream radar (that’s reviewer code for: “I’m not as familiar with them as I should be” ). They’ve been playing and touring for a decade, but don’t get the kind of radio airplay or press coverage they deserve, which is too bad. The group mines the fertile territory where hard rock, country and jambands meet. At times, they can sound like countrified, Exile -era Rolling Stones, but then can turn on a dime and let loose a barrage of sound that is closer to early Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin. Although they hail from Portland, Oregon, the sensibility that surrounds their songs feels much more Southern. The tracks on American Goldwing deal largely with love and loss, with characters on the outside looking in. Frontman Eric Earley, who was himself born and raised in a small town and spent plenty of time on the outs, knows of what he sings.

The group played all but one track from American Goldwing, ranging from the catchy, mid-tempo “Love the Way You Walk Away,” a song that would make Gram Parsons proud, to the amped up swagger of “Might Find It Cheap” and “Astronaut.” About midway through their set, Earley announced that they were going to “rock a little harder…because that’s what we like to do.” This meant uncorking the genie that is guitarist (and keyboardist) Erik Menteer. Menteer, who favors blue jeans that are more patch than jean, and whose unkempt blond bangs hang down over his eyes, looks like every stoner kid in my high school who thought he could play guitar. But the difference, and it really is an important one, is this: he’s really really good, and everyone I knew in high school sucked. I love the slow, dusty songs that this band does so well – “Girl In a Coat,” “Taking It Easy Too Long” – but live on stage, it was the rock-hard rockers they were truly impressive. Riding on top of a foundation of sound built by Earley, bassist Michael VanPelt, drummer Brian Adrian Koch and fellow guitarist/keyboardist Marty Marquis, Menteer set the stage afire on tracks like “Your Crying Eyes,” “Street Fighting Sun” and “Fletcher.” He’s not one of those guitarists whose idea of a solo is just to pile note upon note to showcase his virtuosity. No, he plays inside the song, but with razor-sharp musicianship. He stands stage right – put yourself in front of him and you’ll be deaf and dumb by the time the show’s over, but oh what a nice way to go. Blitzen Trapper closed the night with a devastating cover of the classic Zeppelin track “Good Times, Bad Times” – a well-justified nod to one of their musical forebears.

The tour is out West now, and runs through mid-November.