in performance: dave rawlings machine

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Photo by Henry Diltz.

“We’ve got a bunch of new songs to rehearse for you tonight,” remarked David Rawlings last night at the Brown Theatre in Louisville. Perhaps he felt this was an necessary admission, as this was the first night of a month long tour for the Dave Rawlings Machine, the first show since the release of his new “Poor David’s Almanack” album, and, as a result, the first time onstage for much of the record’s material.

Truth to tell, the looseness that permeated the program seemed entirely natural. Rawlings, partner Gillian Welch and the rest of the Machine, possessed an easygoing command of their repertoire – whether it was through the Dylan-esque songs played from his first two albums (“A Friend of a Friend” and “Nashville Obsolete”) or the more old world folk fortitude of the “Almanck” material. As such, there was a quiet, loose introspection to some of the more delicate tunes (the parlor-ready “Lindsey Button” from the new record) and a jamboree flavored drive to feistier works (“To Be Young” from “A Friend of a Friend”).

Though he was all smiles throughout the concert, Rawlings proved a keen guitarist capable of whipping up a quick-picking frenzy on songs like “Ruby.” But he also designed less obvious patterns that supplemented the roots-directed turns in the “Almanack” tunes – in particular, the sleepy guitar line that wound its way into “Yup,” a slow poke-paced saga of an old woman’s whimsical defeat of the devil.

There was plenty of fire power in the rest of the Machine ranks, too. Old Crow Medicine Show alum Willie Watson was the evening’s utility man, playing guitar, fiddle, banjo and – “as of a few hours ago,” as Rawlings put it – bongos. He also previewed a rustic take on the gospel/blues chestnut “Samson and Delilah” that will appear on his next album. Likewise Brittany Haas added all manner of muscular solos and lyrical runs throughout the show on fiddle.

Then there was Welch, a perhaps bigger marquee name than Rawlings, who was content to play co-pilot for much of the program, adding earnest harmonies to “Midnight Train” (the most infectious and immediate of the eight songs played from “Almanack”) and a set closing cover Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately.” She briefly took the wheel for a pair of regally reserved nuggets from her 2003 album “Soul Journey” – “Back in Time” and “Look at Miss Ohio.”

The evening’s highlight, though, clearly belonged to Rawlings. In the midst of an understatedly solemn performance of the “A Friend of a Friend” gem “I Hear Them All,” he took a rapid, dramatic turn into “This Land is Your Land” complete with the infamous “No Trespassing” verse.

If ever there was a time for such an iconic folk statement to be reinstated into the modern music lexicon, it’s now. If ever there was a more unassuming but fitting artist to oversee such reclamation, it’s Rawlings.


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