Dolly Varden celebrates release of new album


Matt Thobe, Diane Christiansen, Mark Balletto, Steve Dawson, Mike Bradburn

While mid-January typically ushers in the post-holiday winter blahs, anyone who makes it to City Winery on Sat. Jan. 19 will bask in the sunshine of harmony-rich pop with a seductive country tinge.

The musical spark comes courtesy of Dolly Varden, a group that had maintained the same lineup for close to 20 years—and makes a fitting pairing for a winery, since the quintet only gets better with age.

The occasion? The release of their joyous new album, “For A While.”

“The songs on ‘For A While’ all showed up around the same time and are loosely centered around a common theme of time passing, mortality and gratitude,” says Steve Dawson, who with Diane Christiansen makes up the husband-wife team at the core of the band. 

Fans of smart, savvy singer-songwriter fare should be grateful, too. While it’s uncommon to find a Chicago band that yields such consistently catchy harmony and melody in its work, Dawson ups the ante even further with songwriting that’s masterful and at turns literary.

Witness the impressionistic lyric of “Del Mar, 1976,” where Dawson constructs a wistful pastiche of childhood images that flow with the water-smooth grace of a film in miniature. In four-plus minutes, he invokes Buck Owens, pickle weed hills, water towers and “the sad songs of the ’70s playing soft from a radio at the bottom of her stairs.”

Dawson teaches a songwriting class

Yet if Dawson harbors any secrets songwriting-wise, it’s not as though he’s unwilling to share them. He’s been teaching a popular songwriting class at the Old Town School of Folk Music since 2005, where he asks students to construct songs around particular exercises, such as “a 12-bar blues that doesn’t sound like a blues.”

Dawson in fact used that assignment to conjure up “Saskatchewan to Chicago, “one of the songs on “For A While.”

“I don’t often do the assignments,” Dawson confesses. “I should, though. I’d be more productive, I think. I have begun to follow my own classroom advice better, though, which is to let the imagination freely explore without constraint of making concrete sense — to let the words and music find their own way and to try to get out of your own way. It’s a much more difficult and fun writing process.”

A focused sound and energy also permeate “For A While,” thanks to the hand-in-glove harmonies of Dawson and Christiansen, and tight band performances with spare overdubbing compared to the predecessor album, “The Panic Bell.”

On that disc, “I got a little overdub crazy,” Dawson recalls. “It worked well on a few songs, but on others I wish I’d shown more restraint. On ‘For A While’ I was conscious of only adding stuff that really supported the band performances. I think it makes the album a better listen overall.”  

Special guest Jenny Bienemann opens the Jan. 19 show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15-$20; to purchase, click here.