David Rawlings Machine concert review from last night in Madison, Wisconsin

David Rawlings Machine
High Noon Saloon
December 7, 2009

The David Rawlings Machine rolled to the curb for a rest midway through their show last night when Ketch Secor looked up from his fiddle tuning and asked, “how are the Packers doing?” No one answered. The game was blinking over the bar but no one knew the score. Secor chuckled. “Well God bless them,” he said, then bowed the walk-in notes to a raging gospel number “Set This World on Fire.”

It takes a very shiny thing to divert a bar full of Wisconsinites from a Packer game. From start to finish, The David Rawlings Machine was a strobe light. Explosive, pitching audience members around the sold-out room like crash test dummies during one song, soothing them like little babies the next.

It doesn’t matter whose name they perform beneath, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are indeed a machine. A machine with powerful parts. Secor was joined by guitarist/vocalist Willie Watson and bassist Morgan Jahnig to round out the ensemble. In their other life they make up 3/5 of the power string band Old Crow Medicine Show. They also contributed to the tour’s CD, “A Friend of a Friend,” which is, incredibly, Rawlings’ first record under his own name. The disc fueled about half of last night’s thrilling 22 song set.

The heart of the duo’s deal has always been Rawlings’ guitar. Rawlings doesn’t play his big, coffee-colored, hollow body Gibson so much as he squeezes, strokes, chokes and does just about everything but blow into it. The show started with some simple brush strokes on his vintage instrument, then Secor’s harmonica entered and popped the clutch on the song, stroking alive a locomotive engine, rushing the riff, eventually propelling the band into the old time train tune, “Monkey and the Engineer,” from the new CD.

No sooner did that song pull into the station and the band surprised everyone by gliding into a delicate cover of the Dead’s “Candy Man.” The song may be about a drug dealer but the melody a fresh wonder, opened it up like a children’s book by slowing it down even more than the original. The four-part harmony was heaven sent, each voice a silhouette over the next. It silenced the house; with nothing but the whir of furnace fans filling the long dots of time between the performers’ simultaneous breathes.

Things got all bowlegged with a barn fire version of the hillbilly standard “Hot Corn, Cold Corn.” Afterward, “I Hear Them All” took the crowd to church and segued into a faithful version of “This Land is Your Land;” the slim, smiling Welch cradling her Gibson Hummingbird, a dream in denim and sleeveless v-neck.

The High Noon was teaming with some of Madison’s best musicians--including drastically talented openers Josh Harty and Shauncey Ali. Rawlings’ guitar style knocked the breath out of them all. His black velvet bag of tricks is deep and lined with emotion. During solo breaks Rawlings disappears into musical rabbit holes, apparently forever, leaving the listener to wonder if the song will ever come back but, harnessed by Rawlings’ emotional explorations, never caring if it does or not. Without warning he simply emerges, pokes his head up just in time for the next verse, like nothing happened. During his extensive solo on “Ruby,” he alternated soft picked harmonics with brutal eighth-note strikes, taking the serenity of the song and making it worry. This solo even had Secor’s head shaking in disbelief. He enjoyed the aftermath of it, standing and smiling, at the happy expense of coming in on his fiddle.

On faster numbers like the lovably naughty “Sweet Tooth,” Rawlings wound out the music in his instrument as though it was a monkey crank organ. He made his guitar notes chase after the his singing, daring them to catch him and take over. Until they did.

“Time, The Revelator,” the 2001 blockbuster CD recorded under Welch’s name, was delivered from way up high in the mountains. “A Friend of a Friend” rolls way down low into the heart of the dust bowl. “It’s Too Easy” was strife straight out of the Depression made hopeful by Rawlings’ capable clawhammer banjo and twin fiddles by Secor and Watson .

Twice during the set the Old Crow boys left the stage leaving Rawlings and Welch run the machine on their own. Rawlings said they ate dinner at the Eldorado Grill. He shared that that put them in mind to sing the cowboy song “Diamond Joe,” which they did with the pure pleasure of adding a song they loved into the play list on the fly.

The sold out room filled up immediately after the doors opened at 7:00 p.m. With all the tables and chairs gone, the main floor was a pine forest of people. Welch and Rawlings are able to sing extremely personal songs without a cent of falseness, sentimental without selling it out. This makes for particularly good couples music, and everywhere you looked lovers stood loving as they listened, arms all around their mates.

At 10:15 the bartenders were leaning against the back rail, arms folded across their chests, grinning. Nothing to do even though the place was packed. The show wasn’t even half over and Rawlings had managed two magic tricks never before seen in the Badger State. Not only did he make a roomful of ‘Sconnies forget all about their Packers, he made them forget all about their drinking.

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Views: 236

Tags: Crow, David, Gillian, Medicine, Old, Rawlings, Show, Welch

Comment by DEADDRUNKANDNAKED on December 8, 2009 at 9:03am
forget about their drinking....that's blasphemy
Comment by Tom Jennings on December 8, 2009 at 1:05pm
i hate to be a complete dick here, but unless things have changed it is a small, coffee-colored, hollow body Epiphone.

but i loved your article, and i very much love the new album, i am trying to persuade my american friends to go and see them in austin. Thanks a lot for writing about them!
Comment by Andy Moore on December 8, 2009 at 1:11pm
You're right, Tom. It is an Epi, late '30s model long before Gibson bought them. My drop. Thanks for checking out the review, thoug.
Comment by Jonathan Beers on December 8, 2009 at 2:07pm
Hi Andy,

I enjoyed your review (and the show!), but in the spirit of fan being short for fanatic, here's my two cents.

They didn't play any songs from _Time (the Revelator)_, unless my memory is fogged. I can post the setlist if you like (don't have it on me). Also, the correct title is "He Will Set Your Fields On Fire".

"Monkey and the Engineer" was written by Jesse Fuller circa 1960. Jim Schwall has some great stories about going to hear Jesse play in a bar in SF in the late '60s. For a picture of Fuller's one-man band invention, see: http://taco.com/roots/fuller.html

If you want to read the story of Rawlings finding the Epiphone covered w/ sawdust in a friend's shop and adding a custom bridge, I could probably dig it out of the archives on the Whiskey Girl yahoogroup. He'd barely started playing it when he used it on _Revival_. The guitar is unusual in that the strings produce nearly equal volume - it doesn't emphasize or diminish particular notes. Some Rawlings fans have searched out 30's Epiphones, only to find that these are generally not very good guitars - they're small, cheap student guitars.
Comment by Andy Moore on December 8, 2009 at 2:17pm
Great insights, Jon! Thanks for sharing.
Comment by Tom Jennings on December 8, 2009 at 2:37pm
Jonathan, i actually have a 1937 epi olympic, it isn't rawlings spec, and that is partly what i love about it. firstly, mine has a larger body, binding and complete f-holes. also, a somewhat different sound, imho much more suited to unaccompanied playing, it has more body in the tenor range while still retaining the odd compression characteristic that many guitars of this ilk have. i managed to get mine cheap (mainly because it isn't a rawlings spec), but it does have the hallmarks of a well used guitar. that said, i would never give up this guitar, while i started out trying to emulate david, i ended up with a wonderfully unique guitar and individual sound.
i could post some pics or maybe even a video if anyone is interested.....
Comment by James McKelvey on December 9, 2009 at 11:44am
Sounds like a wonderful show and very good review. I first caught the duo when they said they only knew three songs at Merlefest in 1993. Have been meaning to put a gallery of pictures I've taken over the course of seeing them in North Carolina almost yearly since then on the No Depression site.

Caught this tour earlier in the two week run and while I liked it do like the freewheelin' atmosphere of the Machine as a duo. The look on Gil's face as they launch into a song that he hasn't told her they are going to do in advance is priceless.

Long may they run! Hope they release some live downloads someday, too, but I've been saying that for years and they just don't seem to listen.

P.S. I'm the guy who put "Live and Obscure" together if you have that little batch of covers they used to do. Sent them about fifteen copies of it back in the days of trading (pre-BT) just about this time of year via Dave's dad.
Comment by Mary Elizabeth Hunt on September 22, 2011 at 7:12am
David and Gillian are awesome musicians. I always like to hear them play and sing. Wish it could be in person. :)

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.