In our house, space is a very precious commodity. Instrumental guitar records have to work extremely hard to earn their place on the CD shelves (yes, I do know what Sonos and Spotify are, and no, no thank you). No matter how impressive, super-noodling is not enough if there is no musical heart beating beneath. Thankfully, the latest release from celebrated Canadian guitarist Steve Dawson has that beating heart and yes, he has the hands to match.
Originally from Vancouver but now a resident of Nashville, Steve Dawson may be a more familiar name to you as a session guitarist and producer. Over the past decade he has accrued an embarrassingly huge array of musical accolades (including a whopping seven Juno awards), working with the likes of Kelly Joe Phelps and John Hammond, so it’s little wonder that Lucky Hand has southern, blues-soaked Americana at its core. Close your eyes and you’ll see a bunch o’ folks playing this music on the front porch of a sturdy oak-framed house somewhere in the dustbowl. Probably.
With Dawson mixing up fingerstyle and slide techniques, both W.G. Snuffy Walden and Leo Kottke spring to mind. There’s a balance of precision and energy in the playing that every acoustic guitar instrumental record needs but what really sets Lucky Hand apart from the crowd are the inspired string arrangements peppered throughout, courtesy of Dawson’s long-time collaborator Jesse Zubot. It is so much more than just long-bowed sweetness; there is real invention in the agile interplay between the guitar and quartet, with the playful opening track ‘The Circuit Rider of Pigeon Forge’ recalling the legendary Penguin Café Orchestra. Equally quirky is ‘Old Hickory Breakdown’ which has the quartet and guitar trading licks and on ‘Bone Cave’ we’re presented with a mashup like no other: it’s Contemporary-Classical-Cajun.
Other textures on the record come in the form of John Reischman’s mandolin on the particularly sweet ‘Little Harpeth’ and some beautiful harmonica work from Charlie McCoy duelling with Dawson’s resonator guitar on ‘Bentonia Blues’. There are also splashes of ukulele, twelve-string and - for album closer ‘Bugscuffle’ - the Weissenborn lap guitar gets an airing too, naturally.
The intimate, chamber (as opposed to lush, sweeping) sound of the record helps the aforementioned front porch vibe and I wasn’t surprised to find that the album was recorded live with up to twelve mics in the room, which alone is a serious testament to Dawson’s considerable skills as a guitarist. For me though, the depth and bravery of Jesse Zubot’s arrangements constitute the record’s special ingredients. They help to elevate Lucky Hand high above the vast majority of instrumental fingerfests and will keep me coming back for future listens. Now then, I just need to make a centimetre or two of space here…
“It is inspiring to hear modern instrumental music for guitar that is articulated within true song form. Steve Dawson’s new album conjures the ghost of John Fahey for me – not in imitation, but by way of joining a tradition and then extending its range. I find this song cycle to be intelligent and challenging; joyful and deeply romantic; both earthy and untethered. It is affirming – and music to which I shall soon be returning.” - Joe Henry
"Steve Dawson’s Lucky Hand is a beautiful, genre-stretching collection of guitar instrumentals — moods from joyful to poignant, expressed through some of the coolest fingerpicking you’re likely to hear. The sweet slide playing is framed intermittently, and effectively, by the presence of imaginatively constructed string arrangements and some tasty harmonica. Check it out!" - Bruce Cockburn
There is something deep within each of us that wants to push the boundaries to experience something that we’ve never encountered before. Some people are driven to distraction by an uncharted corner on a map, others by the promise of a blank canvas. For Steve Dawson, it’s the strings along a fretboard that suggest limitless possibilities. As a multiple Juno Award-winning producer and sideman, Steve spends a lot of his time in the studio capturing the essence of artists such as Jim Byrnes, Matt Patershuk, Kelly Joe Phelps, John Hammond, The Birds of Chicago and Big Dave McLean. But, it’s when Steve turns his hand to composing and playing his own original material that he truly shines.
‘Lucky Hand’ represents a high point of more than two decades of musical searching. Comprised of ten instrumental tracks of solo, duo and full-bodied string quartet works, Dawson has never released music as sweeping, dynamic and visually suggestive as this. Enlisting his old partner, Jesse Zubot along to create complementary and adventurous arrangements for his guitar excursions, these completely realized compositions – with Zubot’s orchestration adding colour to the sepia tinged melodies - represent Dawson’s finest recordings yet. 2018 marks 20 years since the debut of Zubot and Dawson, and their collaborations never cease to inspire.
‘Lucky Hand’ is Steve Dawson’s 8th album and his first record of instrumental music since ‘Rattlesnake Cage’ in 2014. The scope of his musical voice broadens to take on a cinematic quality as he sketches aural paintings and creates tapestries of sound with his guitar. Recorded live off the floor, with up to twelve microphones in various positions throughout the large studio space to capture the guitar and orchestration, this recording represents the perfect intersection of the primitive and the modern that has fascinated Steve for so long.
Since the beginning of his career, Dawson has beguiled his listeners with his unforced approach to slide and fingerstyle guitar. Nimble melodies dance through the undercurrent of his deceptively simple songs, but scratch a little below the surface and there’s a wealth of musical riches embedded in the tracks that slowly reveals itself. As Dawson’s playing demonstrates, it can take a lifetime of toil to make music like this that sounds so fluid, unforced and easy. Listen carefully and you’ll discern snatches of musical ideas from dustbowl history and the Delta Blues, nods to Chet Atkins, the inference of a Mississippi John Hurt melody, the dissonance of John Fahey remembered in a sustaining chord, and modern touches with nods to Leo Kottke and Sonny Landreth. Close your eyes and you can picture Doc Watson and Charlie Patton jamming together, sharing a wink and a nod to resolve a melody. But, Steve Dawson is never reverential without purpose and has no interest in echoing ancient riffs to show off the depth of his musical knowledge. The references are simply points on the compass for a new map he is drawing with ‘Lucky Hand.’
In the lead up to recording ‘Lucky Hand’, Steve was exploring Van Dyke Parks’ music and was fascinated by the musical interactions between Parks’ avant-garde string arrangements and the Americana guitar playing style he explored on early recordings with Ry Cooder and Phil Ochs. With this as his inspiration, Steve reached out to Jesse Zubot to help fulfill his vision by scoring and arranging the strings for five of ‘Lucky Hand’s tracks. With the cream of the crop of Vancouver’s new music scene – including Peggy Lee (cello), Jesse and his brother Josh Zubot (violins) and John Kastle (viola) – contributing to the session, the results are never less than astonishing. Whereas in the past, Dawson and Zubot would compose together, for these tracks the pair worked in isolation, with the strings fleshing out and responding to the melodies suggested by the guitar in Dawson’s new compositions. The music they have created is moody and intense, full of imagery and suggestion. Each song is like a movie, just waiting for its script.
All of Dawson’s records feature a wide array and stringed instruments, and ‘Lucky Hand’ is no exception. His artistry on the six and twelve string guitars shimmers throughout, while ‘Bugscuffle’ showcases his unique tuning and voice on the Weissenborn lap guitar. (‘D Minor National) features a thrilling duet between his National Steel Guitar and roots legend Charlie McCoy’s harmonica. Gorgeous interplay abounds as Steve’s guitar converses with John Reischman’s mandolin on ‘Little Harpeth.’ At times it’s hard to tell where Dawson’s guitar begins and Reischman’s mandolin ends. A truly masterful performance, it’s just one of the many breathless, transcendent moments to be heard on ‘Lucky Hand.’
With song titles like ‘Lonesome Ace’ and ‘Lucky Hand,’ a person could be forgiven for thinking that Dawson attributes his creativity to chance and caprice. In truth, each of these songs is named for the inspiration of places he’s encountered around his Nashville hometown. Music like this has nothing to do with good fortune, unless you’re talking about his listeners. For them, ‘Lucky Hand’ is a royal flush of a record.