Live Review: Dave Rawlings Machine

15 February 2016 | 4:13 pm | Steve Bell

"Rawlings looks all the world like a big grin in a cowboy hat as they're demanded back for an encore..."

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When Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch play together under the latter's banner — as they so transcendentally did recently at The Tivoli — it's just the pair of them in duo-mode. 

But when they saddle up as Dave Rawlings Machine it's a much heftier enterprise, their inimitable chemistry augmented by former Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson (guitar), Punch Brother Paul Kowert (upright bass) and the affable Brittany Haas (fiddle). Accordingly there's a different vibe in the air for this band's first ever show in this country, more celebratory than awed, proceedings opening wonderfully with the sprawling and cruisy The Weekend (which also opens recent second album Nashville Obsolete). Rawlings seems completely comfortable in the driver's seat and the triple harmonies are stunning, Welch taking the high register as the desolate and haunting epic Bodysnatchers leads into Pilgrim (You Can't Go Home), Watson showing his versatility amidst the track's double-fiddle barrage. Rawlings' guitar work is just as virtuosic here as in Gillian Welch mode but these arrangements aren't as reliant on his texture, although the two worlds intersect when they are thrown in Welch's Wayside/Back In Time. Rawlings actually co-wrote Ryan Adams' To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High) so it feels very comfortable in his grip, and he goes into duet mode with Welch on the restrained Bells Of Harlem. Willie Watson has ditched his former roughneck persona, seeming more like a genteel Southern gentleman as he offers Charley Jordan's Keep It Clean, before a funereal take on Grateful Dead's Candyman leads through the banjo-heavy It's Too Easy to complete the first section in a hoedown flurry of hoots and hollers.

All and sundry seem socially lubricated as the break ends with the perfect restraint of Ruby, the jaunty The Last Pharaoh eliciting smiles as the troupe pull out every trick in their canon to breath jubilant life into Bill Monroe's He Will Set Your Fields On Fire. The vitality inherent in these old-time reveries is undeniable, Sweet Tooth segueing into a medley of Old Crow's I Hear Them All (another Rawlings co-write) and Woody Guthrie staple This Land Is Your Land. Watson chimes in again with old folk standard Stewball (made famous by Leadbelly) — during which he coaxes massive crowd participation — before Short Haired Woman Blues and a casually uplifting rendition of Dylan's Queen Jane Approximately find the band taking a bow and heading into the darkness. Rawlings looks all the world like a big grin in a cowboy hat as they're demanded back for an encore, Welch opening with her transcendent Look At Miss Ohio before Rawlings offers another mash-up — this time Bright Eyes' Method Acting wrapping around Neil Young epic Cortez The Killer — and the night ends with a second encore which finds the whole band trading verses of The Band's The Weight, helped out superbly by the delighted crowd: a perfectly unified finale for a wonderful communal experience.