Dolly Varden

Chicago quintet Dolly Varden is built around the singing and songwriting of husband and wife duo Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen, along with Mark Balletto on guitar, Matt Thobe on drums and Mike Bradburn on bass. Though the band’s name suggests a euphonious connection to a certain country singer, it is actually derived from a rare and beautiful species of trout which in turn was named after a character in Charles Dickens’ short novel ‘Barnaby Rudge‘. Strange, but true: Dawson and Christiansen both had fathers who were avid fishermen who dreamed of one day catching the elusive Dolly Varden in an icy Alaskan lake. Dawson and Christiansen started the band in 1994 when their previous band, Stump the Host, broke up. Originally a trio with bassist Lisa Wertman, Thobe and Balletto joined within months and they began playing shows in Chicago and the Midwest. In 1995 Mike Bradburn replaced Wertman, solidifying the bands’ present day line-up. Dolly Varden recorded their debut album, Mouthful of Lies, in Christiansen’s art studio on a 4-track cassette machine and released it on their own Mid-Fi label. Mouthful of Lies was played regularly on WXRT-FM in Chicago and at the end of the year the station named it one of the best local releases of 1995. Through 1996 Dolly Varden continued writing and playing whenever and where ever they could, building up a fanbase and gathering reviews. In 1997, following a year of exciting and frustrating music biz adventures, the band signed with New York indie label Evil Teen Records. Their second album, The Thrill of Gravity (1998), was produced by Dolly Varden and recorded by Bundy K. Brown at Uberstudio in Chicago, and features guest appearances by David Grubbs (piano), and Julie Liu on violin. The band did their first national U.S. touring for Gravity, supporting Whiskeytown and Gov’t Mule, and headlining shows in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Dolly Varden’s third album, The Dumbest Magnets (Evil Teen Records, 2000), was produced and recorded by Brad Jones (Chuck Prophet, Josh Rouse) at Alex the Great Studio in Nashville, TN. The Dumbest Magnets was also licensed in 2001 for release in the UK on Flying Sparks Records, and in Europe on Fargo Records. Magnets significantly raised the group’s profile with rave reviews in Rolling Stone Magazine, The Village Voice, No Depression Magazine, Uncut, CMJ and many daily papers across the U.S. The band increased their touring schedule, adding dates in the U.K. and France throughout 2000 and 2001. Legendary BBC radio host Bob Harris was a big supporter of the album and the group in the U.K. For their fourth album, Forgiven Now, released in March 2002 on the newly formed Undertow Records, the group once again recorded with Brad Jones in Nashville, TN. Pedal Steel legend Al Perkins (Rolling Stones, Gram Parsons) makes a guest appearance on the songs “There’s A Magic” and “The Lotus Hour”. 2002 was the group’s busiest year of touring to date with shows from coast-to-coast in the U.S. (including an East Coast tour with Jay Bennett and Edward Burch) and 2 trips to the U.K. After writing, recording and touring together for eight years, the group took a step back in 2003 to pursue side projects and raise families. Drummer Matt Thobe and bassist Mike Bradburn both became new fathers and chose to take time off from touring. In 2003, Steve and Diane released an album together called Duets. In 2004, guitarist Mark Balletto formed a band called My Record Player and made a self-titled pop rock album reminiscent of the music that originally inspired him to play guitar. In 2005, Dawson recorded a solo album, Sweet Is The Anchor (Undertow Records), heavily influenced by early ’70s soul and singer-songwriters. Dolly Varden re-grouped with renewed energy in 2006 and recorded and released their fifth album, 2007’s The Panic Bell (Undertow Records). The band toured the East Coast and Midwest in the Summer and Mojo Magazine called it the Americana Album of the Month as the band toured the U.K. that Fall. In 2008 Dolly Varden celebrated the 13th anniversary of their debut album, Mouthful of Lies, by releasing a limited-edition 2-CD set, 13, (disc 1: The Best of Dolly Varden, Disc 2: Rarities) and hosting a sold out show at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music with special guests Lisa Wertman Crowe, Robbie Fulks, Edward Burch and others. In 2009 and 2010 the group stayed close to home and played just a handful of shows as Dawson focused on his second solo album, I Will Miss The Trumpets and the Drums, and Christiansen focused on a large art installation project, “Notes To Nonself” with collaborator Shoshanna Utchenik. The band is currently writing and arranging new songs and will record and release a new album in 2011.

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