Live in Seattle back-to-back: Dave Rawlings Machine and Justin Townes Earle/Joe Pug
Dave Rawlings Machine photos by Kirk
It was Valentine’s Day when Dave Rawlings Machine rolled into Seattle’s Showbox, and nothing could have been sweeter than the amount of banjo they unleashed. Rawlings promised early in the night that we’d get our fill of banjo helpings, and the band did not disappoint.
They kicked the night off with “Monkey and the Engineer” and proceeded through two hour-long sets and two encores.
With an ensemble that tight and talented, it’s hard to name highlights, but fans were pleased by renditions of every song from Rawlings’ recent release A Friend of a Friend, which I named my favorite album of 2009. I stand by that assertion, especially after seeing the troupe deliver the goods live. Fiddler Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show) unleashed some seriously fierce solos, punctuating the songs much the same way Rawlings’ untamed guitar dots Gillian Welch’s compositions. For this occasion, the band was also joined by keyboard master Benmont Tench, who added considerable punch to the arrangements.
As Andy Moore noted in his review of the Machine from December, there’s a reason this troupe calls themselves “Machine,” as they operate with the precision and power of a well-oiled machine. From the way Rawlings coerces the music out of his acoustic hollow-body to Welch’s self-contained, persistent strum, Secor’s rhythmic sawing, the pump of Morgan Jahnig’s upright bass…there’s a sense that the band’s performance is so dripping with synergy as to be almost choreographed.
Still, I couldn’t help but want for more from just Dave and Gillian. They played a couple of tunes – “Look at Miss Ohio,” a stirring, heartbreaking new tune called “Throw Me a Rope,” which I remembered from their set at the No Depression Festival last summer. And, while the Machine was a remarkably entertaining and proficient band whose sets were energetic and commanded the rapt audience, there’s something about what Rawlings and Welch do together which soars far above the everything-going-on of the band.
Still, covers of the Band’s “The Weight” and Tom Petty’s “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” were well-instrumentalized and well-received by the sing-along crowd. Rawlings’ tendency to throw someone else’s song into the middle of his own made for a nice “I Hear Them All”/”This Land Is Your Land” mash-up, and there were plenty of other highlights. No doubt everyone in the room felt the love for that Valentine’s Day show.
A day later, across town in Ballard, a packed house crammed itself into the Tractor Tavern for a double-shot of Joe Pug and Justin Townes Earle. I arrived late and caught only the end of Joe Pug’s set. I’m not sure if it was the sound system or the crowd or Pug himself, but I had a difficult time understanding any of his lyrics – a notable complaint, since his songs are chiefly lyric-driven and offer little in terms of melodic or instrumental decoration. He seems to have picked up the troubadour torch from Dan Bern, though he’s yet to capture Bern’s humor and assertiveness. Maybe I’m overly picky with my folksingers, but the crowd seemed thrilled by the set, which is worth mentioning.
Earle is a seasoned performer, though still in his 20s, and knows how to command a room from the second he takes the stage. This night, he opened with “Poor Fool,” and played a handful of selections from last year’s Midnight at the Movies. Most of the set, though, was wrought with new material, including his first ever swing at a gospel tune. All of it was tight, including backup vocals from Bryn Davies (upright bass) and Joshua Hedley (fiddle), whose talents added new life to old favorites like “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome?” “Someday I’ll be Forgiven for This,” and an easy highlight this night, “Hard Livin’.”
While Dave Rawlings Machine has now tied up its West Coast tour, Earle has dates on the books up through April (according to his MySpace page), including a stop at the Birds on a Wire Folk Festival back here in Washington State next month. Be sure to head out and see him when he comes through your town.