Twenty years ago this month I did a Local Motion story on a band called the Spirit Merchants that ran in the Dec. 16-22 issue of the Straight.
That might not seem like the type of colossal journalistic landmark worth revisiting two decades later, but the Spirit Merchants were not your average Vancouver group. It featured Steve Dawson and Zesse Zubot, who were 22 and 20 years old at the time, and both have gone on to make amazing contributions to the local music scene.
As well as forming Zubot and Dawson--which won a Juno in 2003 for Roots & Traditional Group of the Year--the musicians have done great things on their own. Zubot has become a fixture on the city's improvised-music scene, formed his own creative-music label (Drip Audio), and become an in-demand session player. Dawson has also put together his own label (Black Hen Music) and developed into one of Canada's most respected guitar players and producers of folk, roots, and jazz albums.
If you're a fan of Vancouver-made music who's followed their impressive careers, this dusty article might be of interest, so here ya go.
Seems like every year of late I’ve come across one particular release from a local band that’s been head-and-shoulders above the other Vancouver discs sent my way. Last year, it was Two Trains’ Too Many Faces; the year before that, She Stole My Beer’s Sparks Against the Guardrail. This year, it’s the Spirit Merchants’ Don’t Need Much, the kind of top-quality disc that would be riding high on the Billboard Top 200 if there were any justice in the music world.
The most impressive thing about the Spirit Merchants isn’t so much the music they’ve already made as the music they could make. Considering that the group’s vocalist/guitarist/songwriter, Steve Dawson, is only 22—and electric-fiddle wizard Jesse Zubot just a year out of his teens—the promise of these players is boundless. The bayou-flavoured mix of funky blues and Cajun boogie that predominates on the 11-track Don’t Need Much—engineered and coproduced by Mike Plotnikoff at Bryan Adams’s Warehouse Studios—is fuelled by some startling performances. Zubot’s wild fiddle work really stands out.
“I don’t play like most violin players,” says the soft-spoken Zubot, cradling hot coffee at a downtown café. “Why not just go for it like a guitar? That’s the way I feel about it.”
Zubot, a small-town Saskatchewan native who moved to Vancouver two-and-a-half years ago to study music at Capilano College, has been playing fiddle since the age of four—and it shows. When the Spirit Merchants opened for Pride & Glory at the Town Pump last October, P&G/Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde had to play his ass off to avoid being shown up by Zubot’s earlier fiddle rampage.
Dawson’s snazzy fingerpicking and slide-guitar approaches are another facet of the Spirit Merchants’ winning sound. He picked up a lot of technical pointers during a two-year stint at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music, and he cites players like David Lindley, Lowell George, and Ry Cooder as major influences in the bottleneck department. In fact, he came across the only cover tune on Don’t Need Much—Sleepy John Estes’s “Ax Sweet Mama”—on a Cooder album one day.
“A friend of mine went, ‘Hey, that’s a cool song; play it!’ ” says Dawson. “It became kind of a trademark song for us after that.”
Dawson—who also handles lap steel, Dobro, and banjo duties—enjoys passing on the tricks he learned at Berklee through the private lessons he gives to budding axe masters. (Zubot—who is enrolled in a private music-instruction course under Cap College instructor and local jazz luminary Blaine Dunaway—also teaches in his spare time.)
“That’s kind of how I’ve been surviving for the last year and a half,” says Dawson. “I teach out of wherever I live, and I kinda move around a lot, so it’s a little frustrating. But between that and some studio work, I manage to get by.”
Dawson’s guitar students include the kids of local producer-to-the-stars Bruce Fairbairn. It was through that relationship that Dawson connected with Plotnikoff, who had assisted Fairbairn in producing big-name rock acts like Aerosmith and Scorpions.
“He’s an engineering maniac,” says Dawson of Plotnikoff. “He has a lot of experience, mostly just from people saying ‘I want this done’ and he’s gotta learn to do it in about two seconds. It was great having his influence, ’cause he’s really into the crunchy kinda hard-rock sound, and it was good for us to have some of that element.”
Although the youthful Dawson and Zubot are already among the most accomplished of local players on their chosen instruments, they don’t hesitate to wave the flag for other Vancouver musicians and bands. The Blue Shadows, Salvador Dream, the Rattled Roosters, and the Sun Dogs are among those local acts that get the hearty thumbs-up from the Merchants.
“There’s tons of really good bands in Vancouver,” says Dawson, “and there’s some studio guys that are just phenomenal. Like, one of my favourite slide guitarists lives right here. His name is Robbie Steininger, and he’s a monster musician.”
As far as his own band’s success is concerned, Dawson admits that it hasn’t been an easy road. Just getting Don’t Need Much into local stores took all the resources he and Zubot could wangle.
“We just finished paying off the actual recording,” says Dawson, “and for the pressing, we had to go around and get people to invest, which was a challenge.”
With the four-month-old rhythm section of bassist Rob Post and drummer Pat Haavisto now well worked in—and a management deal inked with Dave Chesney of Bumstead Productions—the plan is to get the band on tour, in a music video, and signed by a major label. Considering the growing popularity of like-minded improvisational roots bands such as Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic, the time could be right for successful marketing of the Spirit Merchants’ intoxicating backwoods brew. But if worldwide fame doesn’t happen for the band members overnight, they won’t get too stressed out.
“We want to do everything,” pipes up the ever laid-back Zubot, “but in a little while.”