When SoCal folk/rock band Dawes released their fifth studio album We're All Gonna Die last September, the music press immediately cited the album's shift in sound. The standard analogy since the band's 2009 debut North Hills had been to compare Dawes to the Laurel Canyon sound of the '70s, a parallel aided by their collaboration with Jackson Browne for a guerilla gig at the Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011.
But with pop radio-friendly party track "When the Tequila Runs Out" anchoring We're All Gonna Die, the band's demeanor seemed to change by late 2016. Just before recording the album, their longtime keyboardist Tay Strathairn parted ways with the band, citing "musical differences." Lee Pardini, a veteran of Jonathan Wilson's band (another modern artist who garners Laurel Canyon comparisons), took Strathairn's place, getting to know his bandmates during the album's studio recording process.
"I was still pretty new to the band and I was just excited to be able to be on the record," Pardini recalls. "It never occurred to me until the record was finished what a shift had taken place sonically, because when we were in there doing it, it was all very natural and it just felt like a continuation."
Among the post-release coverage, the New York Observer wrote that the album "traded jangling guitars for swampy keyboards." Those swampy keys are Pardini's. "It was a real honor to have the room and space and the trust that everybody else had in me to come up with some of those parts," he says.
Pardini first saw Dawes by accident in 2009. He stepped into a club while visiting a friend in L.A., to witness an enthusiastic audience singing along to "When My Time Comes."
"I had never been to a show in L.A. where it was that packed and the audience knew all the words," Pardini recalls. "It just blew my mind and it was so good."
Now Pardini is a core component of keeping that spirit alive. The band's 2017 release, a live album titled, We're All Gonna Live, was recorded over the first four shows of their "Evening with Dawes" tour that began in January of this year. The 15-track collection both showcases their growing exploration of effects and production and revamps Dawes classics like "A Little Bit of Everything" — the Pardini-era rendition plays like a piano-driven Elton John anthem.
The album's cover features a phone number, which diverts to an answering machine where fans and curious callers can leave a message for the band.
"We all got a kick out of that," laughs Pardini. "There were a few drunk dials in there."
The band returned a handful of the calls, harnessing the modern spirit of Twitter interaction in an old-school format. "It reminded me of when there were fan clubs that you could mail into, especially since it was a landline number," says Pardini.
Dawes' growing star power — and singer/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith's recent engagement to actress Mandy Moore — may keep the band increasingly in the headlines, making it more difficult to return calls from fans. For now, they're satisfied to close out a year that's found them opening for Willie Nelson, John Mayer, and Kings of Leon in major arenas, including Mexico City's Sports Palace last week. The band's 2017s nonstop touring schedule comes to a close this week, however. The Charleston Music Hall performance — Dawes' second show in Charleston this year (they performed at High Water Fest) — marks the final show of their extensive "Evening With" tour, and their last performance of a year that's had them on the road since January.
"It'll be a little bittersweet," Pardini admits. "We're all looking forward to a break, but we're all a little bit sad for it to be over for the year."
That could bode well for the band's Charleston fans, as a well-rehearsed, road-tested Dawes closes out a chapter of their musical saga in our town. Whenever they return, it'll likely be on the heels of another new album of ever-evolving songs and sounds.