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I still have vivid memories of Steve Dawson onstage one night at the Lounge Ax with his first band, Stump the Host. Killing time while some guitar strings got changed, he sang an impromptu version of "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman"--lost in the tune, his eyes closed, he made the gender flip irrelevant. Dawson understood that soul singing isn't about bombast and flash but careful shading and deep intuition, and he understands that even better now--he's always sounded a bit like Van Morrison, but he's learned to avoid Van's marble-mouthed excesses. His casually masterful style is apparent on "Love Is a Blessing," a standout track from his solo debut, Sweet Is the Anchor (Undertow). The song's a gorgeous Al Green-style ballad that's steeped in the old Hi Records sound--washes of strings, fatback bass drum, and subtly funky guitar lines--but it's the purity of Dawson's singing, not the arrangements, that makes me think of Anchor as a soul album. Dawson was the primary force behind Stump the Host and later Dolly Varden, but the new record suggests he's at his best when he calls all the shots. He recorded the songs at his house and played most of the instruments, with assistance from a slew of local jazz guys, including cornetist Josh Berman, drummer Frank Rosaly, vibist Jason Adasiewicz, and bassist Jason Roebke. The homespun sound of the record offsets some of Dawson's middle-of-the-road pop-rock tendencies as a songwriter; Berman's blustery, multitracked horn blasts on "The Guilty Will Pay" blow the ambling country-soul tune off course as it begins to fade out; and on "I'm the One I Despise" Dawson undercuts the pleasing pop hooks with corrosive, self-doubting lines like "And the good intentions seem to vanish / Before I can even forget 'em." For this show, a CD-release party, Dawson's joined by Rosaly on drums, Adasiewicz on vibes and drums, Dolly Varden's Diane Christiansen on vocals, and a complement of musicians on brass and strings. Rolldown, a quartet led by Adasiewicz, opens. Sun 8/28, 8 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, 773-525-2508, $10.

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