Dolly Varden – Blueberry Hill (St. Louis, MO)
With the same demure bearing their songs often display, Chicago’s Dolly Varden quietly took Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room stage and proceeded to affirmatively perform almost every cut from their third release, The Dumbest Magnets. With the same five-piece that recorded the new album, the band wasted little time in introducing one of their strongest new offerings, “The Thing You Love Is Killing You”.
In the space the famed Cicero’s basement stage once stood, a crowd of 60 or 70 attentive souls were slowly surrounded by the song’s irresistible narcotic shimmer. Propelled by Stephen Dawson and Diane Christiansen’s seductive yet cautionary chorus, guitarist Mark Balletto’s delicate leads caressed the band’s bittersweet pop, as they would throughout the set.
Dolly Varden’s effortless meld of rock, country and soul influences seamlessly exposed itself throughout the evening. Vocally, on songs such as “Second Chance” and “Too Good To Believe”, Christiansen’s breathy, urbane harmonies floated gently underneath Dawson’s room-filling pleas. This dichotomy also played out in Balletto’s often sublime guitar and lap steel, constantly pulled by both Muscle Shoals and Nashville (and other spheres), delightfully unable to resolve itself.
As if to prove seductive charm and varied inspiration weren’t Dolly Varden’s only weapons, the hourlong show was split into halves by the full-on rock of “I Come To You”, a song replete with the new album’s most insistent chorus and cascading guitars. Betraying a desire to play for each other as much as anyone else, Dawson, Christiansen and Balletto turned inward for the coda, facing Mike Bradburn’s bass and Matt Thobe’s drums for a furious finish. The easy smiles on the fivesome’s faces revealed the shared reward of mutual discovery — a good harbinger for the band and its fans.
Finishing the set by trading an acoustic guitar for electric piano, Dawson quickly launched into the album’s final track, “Simple Pleasure”, its wistfully torn lyricism instantly disabling, seemingly Dawson’s inspired effort at some Tupelo Honey-era Van Morrison deep cut. But a check of the album credits later that night revealed that “Simple Pleasure”, like the live show and all of the band’s newest gems, is exclusively Dolly Varden’s.