Live Review: Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings Machine, Willie Watson, Haas Kowert Tice

22 February 2016 | 1:30 pm | Bryget Chrisfield

"When you hold your bevo between your knees so that you can properly applaud you know you're witnessing something special."

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As the "No Stage Diving" sign is put up outside the venue, those queuing chuckle and one ticket holder quite rightly points out, "Who would stage dive at this one?"   

It's Haas Kowert Tice's first time on Australian soil and they acknowledge how difficult their name is to remember by saying they'll spell it out for us later - why call yourselves that then? Oh, it's the trio's surnames! Theirs is a winning combo of upright bass, fiddle and acoustic guitar and two out of the band's three members are also in Dave Rawlings Machine (Brittany Haas, fiddle and Paul Kowert from Punch Brothers, upright bass). Haas tells us one of their songs is written in the style of a polska and we wish we were sitting on hay bales in a barn. They close with a John Hartford "toon", Skippin' In The Mississippi Dew, and this evening is already somethin'. 

Enter another Dave Rawlings Machine member: Willie Watson. He has the whitest teeth and sings about not wanting any cornbread. His Stetson and guitar look huge! Then Watson switches to banjo for song two and apologises to "all the ladies for all the awful things [he's] about to say" via song. Watson sure is a character, also plays harmonica and makes us all laugh with his wordplay. Introduced as a "dirty song", Charley Jordan's Keep It Clean is a humdinger: "Coca-cola/Lemon soda... Soap and water" — classic. We're taught how to help Watson perform, proper "folk"-style with "AH-ha"s following each verse's first three lines, before repeating the fourth line after him, for a song about a racehorse called Stewball. Watson finishes on banjo with a "badass gospel song", Dry Bones, and we won't miss an opportunity to catch Watson (who's also in Old Crow Medicine Show) from here on in. 

"Thanks for coming down to our hillbilly hoedown," is how Gillian Welch welcomes us to Dave Rawlings Machine. The band's close formation sees them all clustered front and centre on Festival Hall's wide stage, four in the front line with double bassist Kowert a step back. Who needs drums? Their instruments meld effortlessly and this band sound so authentic we swear there's a whiff of manure in the air. Rawlings resembles Timmy Rogers' redneck uncle from where we're sitting. While Watson places a two-dollar bill under his guitar strings, Rawlings explains he was using a five-dollar bill previously on this tour ('til he misplaced it). Welch uses a hamburger receipt to fulfil the same purpose and they launch into The Last Pharoah. There's a dude lying on the floor in the stalls section who reclines more with each passing song and winds up completely on his back, hands behind head and knees bent up with feet on the floor. When Watson switches to fiddle, Rawlings and Welch are bookended by the instrument and It's Too Easy. Rawlings' exquisite guitar work closing out Queen Jane Approximately (a Bob Dylan cover) makes us collectively shake our heads in disbelief and, in profile, he literally looks like he's making love to his instrument.  

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Now for Gillian Welch. She makes mention of Tom Jones' version of Elvis Presley Blues before the duo perform this song. "We've been doing everything we can to give you a healthy dose of banjo. It can be a substitute for sunlight," Welch claims. Rawlings actually kisses his instrument and we overhear Welch praising Rawlings, "It sounds good," between songs. Welch then promises they're gonna "really, really try" not to leave it another 11 until their next visit to Australia. The pair's charming, light-hearted banter in between songs serves to elevate the heartbreaking subject matter of songs such as The Way It Goes. Welch tells us she was lucky enough to get one free banjo lesson when she purchased the instrument. When you hold your bevo between your knees so that you can properly applaud you know you're witnessing something special. During Six White Horses (which Welsh introduces as a "circus"), Welsh displays masterful clapping, slapping and clogging. After this song, she confesses she came the closest she ever has to eating shit up there when the heel of her boot caught on every cable on the stage. "I'm gonna give you a good killing song," is how Welch introduces Caleb Meyer. Those harmonies! Welch and Rawlings are akin to Johnny and June.  

For the encore, Dave Rawlings Machine return to the stage and perform Look At Miss Ohio. Then Watson sings Midnight Special with extra vibrato. Rawlings sings lead once more on Method Acting/Cortez The Killer. Then the third part of Haas Kowert Tice (guitarist Jordan Tice) is welcomed to the stage for a cover of The Band's The Weight. Kowert takes a verse, totally nails it and there's not a face in the place without a smile. 

We then score an extra encore after a costume change. Just Welch and Rawlings return in their finery: coordinated white and red ensembles decorated with rhinestones. I'll Fly Away dazzles and then the pair delivers an exclusive — a track not played on any of their previous Australian dates. "I think this is the fifth time we've ever played this," Rawlings stresses. I Dream A Highway (the song after which tonight's show is named) floats along, a meditation to close. "We love you more than we can say," Welch enthuses, as their three-week nationwide tour, during which they've driven close to 7,000 kilometres, closes triumphantly.