STEVE DAWSON & FUNERAL BONSAI WEDDING, “LAST FLIGHT OUT,”
The idea of FUNERAL BONSAI WEDDING came to Steve Dawson while riding a bus in his hometown of Chicago. Every day he passed a florist with three windows, each with a sign. “Funeral,” read one. “Bonsai,” another. “Wedding,” read the last.
However random, Dawson realized the words sounded natural when put together, much like the group that would share its title. Indeed, when FUNERAL BONSAI WEDDING released its self-titled debut album in 2014, the collaboration appeared like it shouldn’t work. As the songwriter-singer behind Dolly Varden, an acclaimed Americana band from Chicago, Dawson’s roots are country and soul. He is joined by three Chicago jazz musicians — vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, drummer Charles Rumback and bassist Jason Roebke — known for their inventiveness on Chicago’s legendary free jazz scene, having participated in projects with people like Ken Vandermark, Ryley Walker, Thurston Moore, Nicole Mitchell, Jeff Parker, and Nels Cline, among many others.
Put together, the music of FUNERAL BONSAI WEDDING is unlike all of the above. On Last Flight Out, every sound is inverted: Adasiewicz’s vibes serve as the lead instrument, Dawson’s voice often leads to chants, and Rumback and Roebke shift time to move the music to side pockets as they move it forward. The closest comparison to the ephemeral blissed-out melodies is Van Morrison’s epic Astral Weeks, which aims for transcendence amid ordinariness. To reach those otherworldly heights, Dawson had to invert the process he was conditioned to within the context of a rock band.
“It’s all about the energy,” says Dawson of the group’s sound. “The way these musicians approach music is really different than the way most rock bands approach music. It’s about timing and the way they listen and respond to each other. Things are looser. There’s more spontaneity. In rock bands you learn a song and play it basically the same way. With these guys we nail down the basic structure but within that structure you have a lot of freedom.”
The musicians first played together in 2005 at Chicago’s Elastic Arts, a hothouse for experimental jazz. “It felt like I was floating,” Dawson remembers. That performance led to the group defining its sound in the studio and conducting a handful of shows including its debut at Constellation, a free jazz performance space and a summer performance at the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park. After pausing for a few years, Dawson invited Funeral Bonsai Wedding to join him for a 2017 residency at the Hideout. By then original drummer Frank Rosaly had relocated to Amsterdam and was replaced by Charles Rumback. They were joined by Quartet Parapluie, an all-female classical string ensemble whose members have also moonlighted for groups like Belle and Sebastian, Iron & Wine, and Kanye West.
Afterward, everyone on stage knew what they needed to do next: Make a record and expand the scope of what FUNERAL BONSAI WEDDING could become.
This time out, Jason Roebke played a bigger role in writing the string arrangements to accompany Dawson’s songs, enhancing them in ways that made even the most downcast lyrics glow with beauty. “Jason added to the meaning of the songs. It’s pretty incredible. I had been playing with him for many years, but it shows me he’s paying attention to the full songs — not just his part, but the whole picture,” Dawson says. “It’s really wonderful.”
By shedding traditional song structures, and inspired by the open space created by his new collaborators, Dawson found himself gravitating towards more impressionistic lyrics, which happened to fit the surrealistic world that emerged since the last record. Those details creep into Last Flight Out through lyrics and moods that hover on the edge of both hope and despondency — A state that reflects the everyday news cycle. “The songs go unexpected places,” Dawson says. “I let my imagination go where it will. I didn’t try to confirm it to a traditional narrative.”
The first thought had to be best thought since LAST FLIGHT OUT was recorded in a single day at Kingsize Sound Labs in Chicago with John Abbey at the controls. The band was fresh from a headlining performance at Constellation and wanted to capture that energy in just a few hours.
For Dawson, the magic of FUNERAL BONSAI WEDDING comes from that blind trust. If Dawson hadn’t seen that florist window, if he hadn’t agreed on a lark to improvise on a stage he’d never played, if he hadn’t decided to put his songs in the hands of musicians he barely knew at the time — He would have been stuck.
FUNERAL BONSAI WEDDING is the sound of starting over and not knowing what’s next until it happens.
STEVE DAWSON BIO
Steve Dawson was born in California, raised in Idaho, and currently lives in Chicago. His songs show evidence of all 3 places – the California folk-rock of the 70’s, the country music he heard growing up in Idaho, and the blues, gospel and soul music of Chicago. Steve learned to play guitar in the Idaho public schools and began writing songs and performing with local rock and country bands almost immediately. After high school Steve studied jazz composition and songwriting at Berklee College of Music in Boston, while also performing in the Cambridge folk music scene. The lure of Chicago’s rich musical history of Blues, Gospel and Jazz and the city’s vibrant live music scene drew Steve to his current hometown in the late 80’s. His first band was Stump the Host, an eclectic and twangy high energy group that featured the firey two-part singing of Steve and his wife and singing partner, Diane Christiansen. The band caught the attention of national press and record labels and led to a publishing deal with PolyGram Music. Stump The Host evolved into Dolly Varden in the mid 90’s and became Steve’s main musical focus through the early 2000’s, releasing a string of acclaimed albums and touring all over the U.S. and Europe. In the mid 2000’s Steve decided to do less touring and began teaching guitar and songwriting at the legendary Old Town School of Folk Music. He also opened a recording studio, Kernel Sound Emporium, and began producing and recording his own solo albums, along with other Chicago-area singer-songwriters. His solo albums, “Sweet Is The Anchor (2006),” “I Will Miss The Trumpets and the Drums (2010)” and “Funeral Bonsai Wedding (2014),” have expanded and reinforced Steve’s reputation as ““One of the most underrated songwriters in American music,” and “a classic artist hiding in plain sight.” In 2016 Steve co-wrote a book, “Take It To the Bridge: Unlocking the Great Songs Inside You,” with Mark Caro, based on his popular songwriting classes at The Old Town School. Steve is currently finishing a forth solo album at Kernel to be released in late 2020, and the follow-up album with Funeral Bonsai Wedding, “Last Flight Out,” featuring the Quartet Parapluie string quartet will be released in May, 2020.
contact: steve at stevedawsonmusic dot com
Steve Dawson double LP solo album – in production (late 2021)
Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding, “Last Flight Out”
Steve Dawson and Mark Caro, “Take It To The Bridge: Unlocking The Great Songs Inside You.” A book on songwriting and the creative process (2016)
Steve Dawson and ellen cherry, “The Thread” EP (2015)
Steve Dawson, Funeral Bonsai Wedding (2014)
Dolly Varden, “For A While” (2013)
Steve Dawson, “I Will Miss The Trumpets And The Drums” (2010)
Dolly Varden: “The Panic Bell” (2007)
Steve Dawson, “Sweet Is The Anchor” (2005)
Steve Dawson, “Demos for Dolly” (2004)
Steve Dawson & Diane Christiansen: “Duets” (2003)
Dolly Varden: “Forgiven Now” (2002)
Dolly Varden: “The Dumbest Magnets” (2000)
Dolly Varden: “The Thrill of Gravity” (1998)
Dolly Varden: “Mouthful of Lies” (1995)
Stump The Host: “California Zephyr” (7″ single, 1993)