Now in its fourth year, the Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival has grown into a formidable, two-weekend showcase of contemporary twists on American roots music.
Last Saturday the festival featured its bluegrass lineup (the Del McCoury Band with David Grisman, Bill Nershi, Joe Purdy and more) at an additional downtown venue, the Auditorium Theatre. This weekend the fest hunkers down in its birthplace, the trusty, musty Congress Theater, with a rewarding marquee of modern roots-rock: headliners Drive-By Truckers and Dawes, plus breakout locals such as Joe Pug, Bailiff, the Shams Band and more.
Are those really blues bands? For most of these acts, the blues are a starting point, a flavoring, a distant blood relation. The Foo Fighters and the Eagles are playing this spring's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, so perhaps we shouldn't quibble about matching acts to event names.
Taylor Goldsmith, lead singer-guitarist for Dawes, has led his band to great acclaim by sticking to a solid formula of 1970s, Laurel Canyon-inspired, slightly countryish soft-rock styles. But he's nothing if not versatile.
"I'm in Los Angeles right now, rehearsing for a fund-raiser thing my friends are putting together. I'm doing a couple of standards," Goldsmith said, chuckling, during a recent phone conversation. "I'm singing 'What Kind of Fool Am I?' and 'That Lucky Old Sun' -- the Ray Charles version."
At the Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival
• Starting at 5 p.m. Jan. 28
• Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee
• Tickets, $35 general admission, $120 VIP, (773) 598-0852, lineup.cbbfestival.com
The band's Chicago festival appearance is part of a small batch of gigs -- including a performance with folk troubadour Donovan last week at the Sundance Film Festival -- during some downtime as the quartet regroups before tackling new songs for a third album. Last year's "Nothing Is Wrong" built on the critical praise the band earned with its 2009 debut, "North Hills"; they were at Lollapalooza in between.
Dawes tends to keep stately company. They served as Robbie Robertson's backing band for a series of TV gigs. Dawes' music is often compared to that of Jackson Browne; the two entities found each other via a mutual friend and a shared admiration of singer-songwriter Benji Hughes. As recently as last month, Browne and Dawes performed together at the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York.
"To meet [Browne], let alone have him be aware of our songs, is more than I can express," gushed Goldsmith, 26.
The parallels are closest in the easygoing, storytelling sense of both artists. Dawes songs are rarely three-minute pop gems. They start calmly and amble, relating a clear personal narrative through beginning, middle and ending -- fresh tales of manly longings and existential ruminations, as well as (typical of a sophomore album) love letters from the road.
"It's strange, and it's not a rock-and-roll-band thing to do," Goldsmith said. "When you look at great rock-and-roll bands there are some great storytellers, but it's not as common. Sometimes I write these things for the band, and it's like six-and-a-half minutes of words. It's weird for a band to be doing that, but it's not weird for us. The challenge is, how do we do this as four people looking to express themselves as players? We're not just John Prine or Bob Dylan. We're four guys contributing to the elevation of the material.
"I wish I could feel comfortable with the three-and-a-half minute song. It's never been easy for me. It never feels finished until I put more in there. I just feel an arc to it. I'm announcing something, I'm bringing something up, and I kinda have to give it the payoff, the suggestion, an end to it. You have to come back around to why you started talking about this in the first place, with a clear intention of what you want to say and leave people with. I just have to achieve that, and it doesn't matter if it's three minutes or six."
In that sense, as well as the patient and occasionally twangy playing by the band -- brother Griffin Goldsmith on drums, bassist Wylie Gelber and pianist Tay Strathairn -- Dawes has more traditional roots in country than blues.
"When you look at a story-based band like The Band, suddenly people throw the word 'country' around," Goldsmith said. "I'm from Los Angeles, California, born and raised. Three of us are, the other guy's from New York. We don't pretend to be immersed in country lifestyles. We see ourselves as purely rock and roll. ... It's easy to describe so many artists and how they sound. But when you talk about someone like Tom Petty, suddenly it's not so easy. It's rock and roll, but you can tell he listened to Dylan and the Byrds, and especially now you hear the blues thing, and there's a lot going on. It's all in the nuances."
Dawes is scheduled on the festival bill at 10 p.m. Jan. 28. For a complete schedule of Chicago Bluegrass & Blues performers, visit lineup.cbbfestival.com.