4:28 PM EST, January 17, 2013
A sampling of how it works for a rock 'n' roll band in middle age:
The bass player and drummer drive in for rehearsal from the suburbs where one of them is an interfaith counselor and the other, for a time, operated a fresh-bread franchise.
One singer, distracted by her artwork, is still learning some of the words to the new songs. The other singer, her husband, has a badly cut finger, injured while cleaning a French press coffee maker belonging to their daughter, home from college. And the event for which they are practicing, a CD-release show for the band's new record, its first in more than five years and second in the last decade, is at a posh new club that pushes wine as a backdrop to the music.
Things are happening at a more measured pace for Dolly Varden than they were in the 1990s and the first part of the 2000s, when it was regarded as one of the Chicago bands most likely to break nationally.
But a careful listen to the new recording, "For a While," out Tuesday after the CD-release show Saturday at City Winery, leaves no doubt that things are still happening.
Fronted by the husband-wife duo of Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen, Dolly Varden has been through more than 17 years and five previous albums together, played a South by Southwest showcase, been courted by major labels, toured the U.K., opened for some of the biggest names in alt-country and indie rock, earned rhapsodic reviews from Rolling Stone and the Tribune's Greg Kot, developed a passionate local following — and then seen all of that simmer down in recent years, as babies came, Christiansen battled uterine cancer, the music business changed, and the spinning wheels of luck, talent and popular taste never quite aligned for them.
Yet instead of putting the amplifiers into a garage or attic and getting on with a more ordinary life, the band, with members in their 40s and 50s, has just made what strikes many listeners — including listeners within the group — as one of the best records of a distinguished career.
Credit to Chicago
"To me, they constitute the fabric of what continues to make Chicago vibrant, and I don't just mean in its arts community," says Richard Milne, host of "Local Anesthetic," which spotlights local musicians on WXRT-FM 93.1 and has played three tracks from "For a While."
"They've weathered the booms and the busts of their contemporaries, all the while producing work of a very high caliber. For Dolly V to have a 17-plus-year career, featuring the same players, re-emerging every couple (of years) to quietly put forth an album containing any number of notable gems? Every city needs more bands like this."
Milne calls special attention to the band's musicianship and to, "of course, the songs and voice of Steve Dawson. His vocals have taken on a rich, amber hue over the years without losing the ability to project unbridled angst. He sings like a nice cup of tea."
"They're really unique in Chicago," says Bill FitzGerald, the owner of FitzGerald's Nightclub in Berwyn. "The last time they played here, I remember just going away, just thinking, 'God, that was just, it was just perfect.' ... All the things they bring, great voices, great sound, great rhythm guitar — it had the feel like you were listening to your favorite LP, putting your tonearm on and just hearing the songs."
Although the band previewed the new songs in a show at Evanston's SPACE in October, Colleen Miller, program director at City Winery, worked to get the release show at her place because she is a fan.
The idea of celebrating a CD's release seems a little quaint nowadays, but it still serves, Miller says, as a gathering for hard-core followers, a way to be sure to hear the new material. While it might have been risky booking a local band that plays out only intermittently for a Saturday night show in the venue's 300-seat room, Dawson, during the rehearsal the week before, tells the band it's going to sell out. This prompts a flurry of talk about getting guest lists together so friends and family won't be left out.
The band used to practice faithfully, every Sunday and Tuesday, in the coach house behind the singers' Wicker Park home. They also used to have "feelings night," when people could air their grievances with one another. Now — another sign of comfort with and confidence in each other — they get together a week or so ahead of a gig, to get rid of the rust, or to record. Feelings night just kind of faded away.
The focus in practice sessions is on working out arrangements and kinks, and stagecraft issues such as how one song will end and another might jump directly in as its successor.
"That was better," Dawson tells his wife after the second run-through of "For a While," a new song on which she sings lead. And, he teases, "You'll practice with the record, and you'll know the words by next Saturday."
Most of the material flows smoothly. The band works on the four-part vocal harmonies on "Obsidian," a song from one of two solo albums Dawson has made in the past decade.
After a new, hard-driving song, "Why Why Why," drummer Matt Thobe, sweating, says, "That's so fun." They open the coach house door for a bit to cool things off, but then a song or two later, Dawson remembers to close it. "The neighbors," he says.
Around them in the building that doubles as Christiansen's studio are the trappings of her art: paint here, paintings there, up in the open loft a giant, pink octopus from an installation titled "Notes to Nonself."
With Christiansen shifting her main offstage focus to making art, Dawson has taken over all songwriting duties, and "For a While" is his most accessible, autobiographical and cohesive collection of songs.
"It's sort of the most contented thematically, because, a lot of the records, especially (the last two), there's a lot of agitation, there's a lot of frustration," Dawson, 47, says backstage at an earlier City Winery show, this one a holiday party for financial services firm Morningstar, whose managing director Don Phillips is a devoted follower. "This record looks back at the past with a — it's cheesy to say — but with more sort of a loving embrace."
There are big, up-tempo alt-country tunes, "Done (Done)," "Walking the Chalkline Again" and "Why Why Why," any of which could fit easily into radio's new fascination with folk song structure and vocal harmonies. (Think The Lumineers or The Head and the Heart.)
If the vocals on "Thank You" were just a little more gravelly, you could convince somebody it was a lost Wilco song. "Girl in a Well" is haunting in meaning and melody.
But the centerpiece is a quartet of autobiographical songs — "Del Mar, 1976," "For a While," "Mayfly" and "Saskatchewan to Chicago" — that reference the band's story with lyrical grace and a directness and honesty, qualities that some of Dawson's past work obscured with cleverness.
"I don't think I was the only person crying like a baby the first time you played 'Mayfly,'" Christiansen tells her husband, as guitarist Mark Balletto, an information technology manager by day, pedal-steel impresario by night, nods.
Its narrator is recounting a dream, but, "In the dream I am a singer," Dawson sings. His band is playing a concert, and there are faces in the crowd, "not so many but enough," and those people are singing along. Other verses are about his relationship with a bandmate, seeing himself with gray hair telling the "same stupid jokes," and waking up in the same house they're living in today, just as Dawson and Christiansen have lived in the same house for decades. The chorus seals it, a simple and profound note to self, a reminder that "We are lucky/ And the story is not over yet/ Yes we are lucky/ And I must not forget."
"Mayfly" is the song that killed everybody in the band from first listen.
"I think it was just a typical practice, going over songs for a gig or the record," recalls Thobe, 43, who works in lighting design after "happily" selling the bread-making franchise he tried for a few years. "I think he just said: 'Oh, I just wrote this. I want to play it for you.'
"Sometimes, you're just like, 'This is a cool song.' But this was like, 'How did you — what happened there?' More and more that's the experience when he brings in a song."
"The stuff came out very sort of straightforward but also with a lot of echoes," Christiansen says, using the word "magical." "There's something about that sort of unabashed embracing of his own history."
He might have gotten to those qualities, Dawson says, thanks to his day job. Since 1995, he's been teaching classes in songwriting and guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music, a change from his previous work at a record store and one of the key factors, he says, in making him a happier person.
In the songwriting class, Dawson says, "I keep telling people to use images that are real to them and also have a level of truth to them, and I finally am taking my own advice."
Plus, with the solo records and a steady schedule of playing and performing with other musicians around town, he's stopped worrying so much about Dolly Varden.
"In the late '90s, early 2000s, I sadly was not able to enjoy all the good things that were happening," he says. "We got a review in Rolling Stone, I'm like, 'OK, good. Now?'"
Secrets of success
Christiansen and Dawson met cute. She was his landlord, renting him part of the Wicker Park two-flat she had bought in 1985 (for — are you ready? — $45,000) because she could use the coach house as a studio. One day, she recalls, she was out back showing slides of her art, practicing for a talk she was giving.
Dawson, an aspiring musician out of Berklee College of Music in Boston and seven years her junior, came out to listen. "He said, at one point, 'I love your mind,'" she remembers. "It just killed me."
Moving in together produced "California Zephyr," a song that is somehow about a train ride, a Hank Williams song and throwing out a couch, all of it at a driving, turned-to-11 pace. It's the best-known song from their previous band Stump the Host, and one that Dolly Varden also plays.
The band is, clearly, not one to throw out what works or even what might not. The name Dolly Varden, for instance, is from a trout species Dawson knew from fishing as a youth in Idaho, where he partially grew up. But even as it gets mistaken for some kind of odd pun on "Dolly Parton," they've stuck by it.
And by each other.
The closest they came to breaking up, band members say, was during a post-Sept. 11 tour of the U.K.
It was after they'd recorded "Forgiven Now," a disappointing exercise in trying to replicate the recording experience of the previous album, "The Dumbest Magnets." (Both were made in Nashville, Tenn., with country producer Brad Jones, and "Magnets" is Dawson's other favorite Varden record, with "For a While.")
"We got lost in every city we went to," Dawson recalls. "The London show was a washout. We had maybe 15 people even though we were getting national airplay. It wasn't because the record wasn't doing well. It was because nobody was going out. It was sort of demoralizing.
"We ended up having some screaming matches, the only time that ever happened. We were just trying to get through it without killing each other."
They got through it.
Dawson's secret to longevity: "I guess you just have to not give up. It's really easy to give in and give up and just say, 'Screw it. It's not worth the frustrations.' Diane and I both are really kind of stubborn in that way. We aren't willing to give in."
But here, perhaps, is the biggest secret of all: They have not only an ordained Lutheran minister in the band, bass player Mike Bradburn, but also an actual marriage counselor. Christiansen has a private practice helping couples, and she says many of the lessons transfer.
Of the band, she says: "We've learned to really forgive each other's foibles and really, really cherish the relationship. It's exactly what's needed in a marriage. ... We've all seen a lot of bands break up. We've seen a lot of people not talk to their former bandmates. We've seen people hate each other. We've seen people die. We're like, 'Yeah, we can be grateful for this.'
"We get along in a way that we didn't before. It's almost like when you see people who in the middle of their marriage or later, they really hit this stride where they're super-empathic and grateful to have the relationship. It seems like that's where we are, the five of us. That kind of flow and gratitude is there in this record as well."
When: 8 p.m. Saturday (Jenny Bienemann opens)
Where: City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St., Chicago
Tickets: $15-$20 at citywinery.com