Knick Knack Records

Lost Dogma’s The Ghost You Left Behind is a great album.

I need to tell you that up front because I’m about to commit a cardinal sin as a reviewer: I’m going to tell you about the backstory of this album and why it’s so important to the music.

I can honestly tell you that I loved the album the first time I spun it, knowing nothing of what went down during the recording of it. I was not a follower of Lost Dogma; I’d totally missed their 2009 debut Hard Times. I had no expectations. I put the album on and it grabbed ahold of me. Simple as that.

And then I found out the rest of story.

Years ago, Patterson Hood wrote a song for the Drive-By Truckers called “The Living Bubba”, a tribute to the late Gregory Dean Smalley. Smalley was a hero of Athens, GA’s “Redneck Underground” scene back in the ‘90s – a player who lived to play and, literally, played to live. Hood’s chorus – “I can’t die now, ‘cause I got another show to do” – summed up Smalley’s homestretch attitude in the final months of his life.

I’m telling you about “The Living Bubba” because The Ghost You Left Behind is an album full of that same attitude: not songs about it – songs played with it. Read the album’s liner notes and you’ll see a dedication to Trey Tidwell. Just above that are the credits for the Ghost sessions … which include a Trey Tidwell on keyboards and guitar.

It’s the same Trey Tidwell.

Tidwell, an original member of Lost Dogma, was diagnosed with cancer around Christmas of 2010. Tidwell entered 2011 determined to play as much music as he could – including the recording sessions that would produce The Ghost You Left Behind – although the disease was beginning to take its toll on him. According to bandleader singer/guitarist Toby Brady, most songs were held to two or three takes in the studio because of Tidwell’s condition. “Trey put what energy he had left into the sessions,” Brady told me. “I really think he was convinced that the music was going to get him through.”

And it did – for a while.

Trey Tidwell died on May 20, 2011 at the age of 36.

The final cut on The Ghost You Left Behind – an instrumental called “One More Round” – is from the last time the original members of Lost Dogma were in their rehearsal space together with tape rolling. We’ll talk about that in a moment. I just wanted to tell you how this album was created.

In the meantime, my opening statement stands: The Ghost You Left Behind is full of good music.

“Speed Dial”, for instance, is as FM-ready as Tom Petty’s best: passionate lyrics delivered with enough of an edge to be real; an arrangement that complements the drama of the words without hyperbole; and even some brace-off-and-let-it-fly guitar (courtesy of master picker/vocalist Dave Brewer). Comparisons fall short with Lost Dogma, however. One could employ the Heartbreakers again as a yardstick for the dusty roadtwang of “Dog Day Afternoon”, for instance – until bassist/multi-instrumentalist Travis Hartman lays down that cool-as-hell trumpet solo … and then there’s only Lost Dogma to hold accountable for a sound like this.

I mentioned Patterson Hood and the Truckers earlier; “Sunny Divide” is cut from some of the same cloth that Hood’s dark and haunting murder ballads are woven from. You know there’s no way the story is going to end well – but Brady’s lyrics draw you in to the point where there’s no looking away.

The combination of snapping, biting, rock-with-a-pinch-of-reggae guitars (Brady and Brewer weave like a vintage Keef and Woody) and the loosey-goosey-but-dead-nuts-on drumming of Michael Alex make “Never Fight The Devil” a study in groove and crunch. “This Side Of You” is a top-down drive in the sun with a heart full of beautiful ache; “Tired” is head-hung and weary, but a grand goodbye nonetheless.

The next-to-last song on Ghost is “Yellow Brick Road”, full of the same ragged stateliness that graced Hunter/Garcia classics such as “Black Muddy River” or “So Many Roads” made only more so by Tidwell’s keys and Brewer’s shimmering pedal steel.

And then there’s “One More Round” – the song that closes The Ghost You Left Behind. Born of an on-the-spot jam, “One More Round” begins with Trey Tidwell’s piano – all by itself, sounding like someone playing a bit of gospel in an empty church. Tidwell shapes out a verse, bringing it to the turnaround as Brady calls out an off-mic “Rolling!” to cue the rest of the band. Alex counts them in with his drumsticks; he and Hartman land on the downbeat of the next verse like they’d been playing the song for years.

Brady’s acoustic guitar is just a gentle presence in the background as the song continues to grow and build – it really is Trey Tidwell’s moment as he works the keyboard. You hear echoes of the greats: a bit of Nicky Hopkins lushness; a barrelhouse trill here that has Ian Stewart’s name all over it. None of it is meant to be showy, however – Tidwell is letting the piano tell the story and sing the song. A swing into the bridge finds a layer of Tidwell organ chords added into the mix (a later overdub) – it feels like a long draw of breath before the final ascension. Dave Brewer enters on pedal steel for the last verses of “One More Round”; it’s almost too much to take in as he shines the light to guide the band home. Tidwell’s piano borders on sounding playful in the song’s final moments – but it never lacks for beauty.

The pedal steel swells and fades, as does the rhythm section. The last thing you hear is a final tone from Trey Tidwell’s keys. And then it’s over.

Lost Dogma carries on these days, just as their bandmate would’ve wanted them to. Kent Halvorsen mans the keyboards as well as adding tasty horn parts as needed. By all reports, the band continues to grow and evolve with the songs pouring out of Toby Brady as fast as he can write them down. With any justice, the rest of the world will eventually figure out what the Northwest US already knows.

If you have a chance, go see Lost Dogma live. In the meantime, lay hands to The Ghost You Left Behind. It’s a hell of an album – and it’s a hell of a story.