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.