If you go see a Gillian Welch show, you’ll see her husband Dave Rawlings accompany her on guitar and vocals.
If you go see a Dave Rawlings show, you’ll see Welch accompany him on guitar and vocals.
The difference is who’s driving. At a Welch show they’ll play mostly Welch songs, ceding the floor to Rawlings for a number or two. At a Rawlings show, the opposite. And most of the time, Rawlings will round out his band with a few more players. For the current tour they’re on, supporting Dave Rawlings Machine’s just released Nashville Obsolete, they were joined by Brittany Haas on fiddle, Paul Kowert on bass and Willie Watson on guitar, all who make appearances on the album as well.
Bedecked in head-to-toe denim, cowboy hats and long prairie dresses, they certainly dressed the part of the deep-rooted folk they were slinging. With an opening salvo of “Ruby,” “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” and “Candy,” they came out guns blazing. Rawlings immediately showcasing his impeccable chops, with Haas entering as the clear and capable second soloist of the group.
Welch grabbed her harmonica for the next song but Rawlings had her return it. “Dave wants me to sing a bummer of a song,” she remarked as they kicked into “The Way That It Goes” off of her Harrow and the Harvest album. This was Rawlings’ show after all. Later in the set he would prompt Watson to swap out his guitar for a fiddle mid-song. “More fiddle!” like the conductor of his own folk freight train.
Everyone, not just Welch, got their turn in the shotgun seat. Watson sang a pair of songs off his Rawlings-produced album Folk Singer Vol. 1 and Kowert was featured on a traditional gospel tune. All members but Haas sang, though she got numerous turns to highlight her fiddle playing throughout the night. Her accompaniment and harmonizing with Rawling’s complicated solos was the secret additive making the Machine run extra hot.
The Machine was most certainly Rawlings’. His clean yet furious picking of his 1935 Epiphone archtop created a highlight-reel’s worth of material. The audience hung on every note, collectively holding their breath as the solos wound to a peak, producing an audible exhaust of CO2 once he made the turn. Just a simple guitar, no pedals or tricks, yet he was able to elicit a library of sound.
During the second set the band would accordion back and forth from the full five-piece down to a couple different trio configurations, and all the way down to the Rawlings/Welch duo for a take on “Sweet Tooth.” Back up to a trio with Watson on banjo, they worked a “This Land Is You Land” perfectly into “I Hear Them All” that turned into a big old singalong just as Pete Seeger would have wanted. Rawlings noted “It’s starting to sound like a real folk concert in here!” To keep the spirit alive they kicked into a Watson-led rendition of “Stewball,” in which the crowd helped balloon the quintet to a band of hundreds.
Early in the set an audience member cried out, “Doesn’t have to be now, but can you play that Dylan song?” Welch quickly retorted, “Which one?!” before Rawlings sought to take back control of his show by stating “We’ve descended into chaos.” But they did play that Dylan song, closing with “Queen Jane Approximately.” They closed out the show in big fashion, with Rawlings grinning widely and bouncing up and down like a rock star, through a blistering solo. It was met with, what wasn’t the first, or last, standing ovation of the night.
Rawlings let Welch take the helm again for an encore of her “Look At Miss Ohio” followed by an a cappella take on “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” that finally got Haas behind a mic. The crowd wouldn’t let the Machine stop working there though. After another relentless ovation the band was back again for a cover of The Band’s “The Weight.” Another chance for everyone to do some singing, except Haas of course, who ‘sang’ a verse with her fiddle instead. And with that, the Dave Rawlings Machine finally came to a rest.
*Ed. note: Pictures were taken at the band’s concert at The Egg in Albany two days later.