Dawes, Dylanophilia, and the Twin Cities' love affair with touchy-feely folk rock

Dawes, Dylanophilia, and the Twin Cities' love affair with touchy-feely folk rock
Photo by Kevin Hays

L.A. Americana band Dawes are so cavalier about their draw in the Twin Cities that they announced their plans to play a New Year's Eve show at the Varsity before they even rolled into town to perform their sold-out show at First Avenue this Friday -- and in his interview with City Pages this week, lead singer Taylor Goldsmith casually mentions that they might add another show on December 30.

Dawes know that they have the Twin Cities in their pocket. Likewise, bands like Mumford & Sons, the Civil Wars, and the Avett Brothers are welcomed into town with sold-out audiences of swooning fans. But this isn't the trickle-down effect of some national trend; both Dawes and Mumford have gushed that Minnesota is their largest, most adoring fanbase. So what is it about our city that makes us topple head-over-heels in love with these touchy-feely, folk-based acts?

It's a trend that goes deeper than the Current Effect, though it's worth mentioning that the station has championed many of the acts from the beginning of their careers and clearly has an impact on ticket sales. The Civil Wars, though, got most of their support from Cities 97, and when they rolled into town to play three sold-out shows earlier this year the station's DJs were still trying to wrap their heads around who they were and why crowds here were in such a fervor to catch them live. So it's a movement more powerful than media influence alone.

The most obvious connecting point for this fascination might be Bob Dylan; especially in his early years, he relied heavily on acoustic guitar accompaniments and fairly basic, repetitive chord changes. Though he made a name for himself in the Greenwich Village scene, the folk music Dylan mined and the stories he told ("Girl From the North Country," "Highway 61," etc.) were distinctly Midwestern. In addition to Minnesotans harboring a special pride for one of our most famous brethren, Dylan's music (whether he openly admits it or not) has always carried noticeable influences from the brief time he spent playing in and consuming the West Bank blues culture of Minneapolis. The folk and blues tradition is a rich part of Minnesota's music history, with acts like Koerner, Ray & Glover and Willie Murphy inspiring generations of folk singer-songwriters and blues musicians, and the Red House label providing a home for some of the most esteemed roots musicians in the country. Even today, the popularity of acts like Trampled by Turtles, Mason Jennings, Caroline Smith, and Roma di Luna can be traced back to the state's Americana roots.

But -- and here's the part where I risk offending legions of die-hard Mumford & Sons fans -- the crop of national acts to grow such rabid fanbases in the Twin Cities take a decidedly lighter (or maybe should I say, "lite"-er) approach to the roots music that is so integral to our state's history. This is radio-friendly music, stripped down to its most basic elements, and there are few turns-of-phrase more complex than a simple metaphor. The lyricism is straightforward, the narratives are crystal clear, and the melodies are plain and fairly predictable. There are acoustic guitars and banjos and sometimes even a pedal steel thrown in here and there, but the approach is more akin to singer-songwriter pop than traditional folk; the focus isn't so much on refining instrumental skill as it is honing the songwriting craft down to its finest point so it may be used as a lightning rod for emotional outpouring. And it's that emphasis on feeling, and on connecting with an audience through impassioned, easily relatable storytelling, that seems to have our concertgoing crowds most transfixed.

This is no great discovery, really; artists have been achieving mainstream success by simplifying genres and making music palatable for mass consumption for decades now. But where in the past an artist might have chosen to play down the more emotional elements of a song to avoid alienating anyone that might tune in to the radio while their single was in rotation, indie folk artists are playing up their earnestness and showing us just how bad they can hurt and how deeply they can fall in love. It's still pop music, but it's just so real.

It's easy to fall for, too. Here's an anecdote that will (hopefully) save me from an inbox full of hate mail: The other day, I was driving in my car when a song came on the Current. I recognized it, but couldn't remember who it was by. It was simple but powerful, and the words caught my attention right away. "It's the news at six o'clock, it's the death of my first dog," the singer sang, and suddenly I wasn't in my car at all; I was thinking about putting my first dog to sleep and all the sadness that exists in the entire world and oh my god, why is everything so fucked up. And don't even get me started about the verse where the bride doesn't seem to want to get married.

I missed the turn for where I was going and spent the rest of the song hanging on every word, a giant lump in my throat. When it ended Mary Lucia came on the air and said "that was a song called 'A Little Bit of Everything' by Dawes," and all I could do was laugh. Laugh that I'm a hypocrite, laugh that I almost had a mini-meltdown in my car, and laugh that Dawes is doing a basic thing pretty damn well.

You win this time, Dawes. You win.

DAWES perform with Blitzen Trapper on FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 4, at FIRST AVENUE (SOLD OUT), 612.332.1775; and with Caroline Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps on SATURDAY, DECEMBER 31, at the VARSITY THEATER, 612.604.0222.

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