Well-oiled: Dave Rawlings Machine Live in Boston
To a theatre filled to the brim with music lovers and musicians, Dave Rawlings Machine performed not one, not even two really, but something more like two and a half sets — if you count that extended encore as a half set, for argument — that burned through the night here in Beantown. Versatility and energy are the name of the game for the Machine and there was no lack of either of those things, as the band played selections from the recent Nashville Obsolete, some classic Welch/Rawlings tunes, and a cover or two.
A humble but excited Rawlings jaunted onto the stage, with his signature 35′ Epi Olympic and his bandmates in tow, to launch the show with a rousing rendition of the first single from Obsolete, “The Weekend.” It started strong, and only building from there. Fiddler Brittany Haas and singer Willie Watson then departed the stage as Rawlings, Welch, and bassist Paul Kowert took on another great track from the new album: the haunting and cavernous “Bodysnatchers.” The dynamic this created in just two songs gave the audience a taste of what would unfold over the next two and a half hours.
The first set contained more from the new album and a collection of Gill and Dave tunes, but the two standouts from that first hour of music were the Willie Watson-led cover of Charley Jordan’s “Keep It Clean” and Rawlings’ flawless execution of Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.” All night long, Watson was on fire. Leading this Jordan tune let him step into the limelight with his signature high register howl and larger-than-life personality, but what was truly amazing was how incredibly brilliant and sublime he was with his sideman duties. He switched on a dime mid-song when Rawlings shouted out “I want more fiddle!” Suddenly he was accompanying Haas in an eruption of joyous noise and cascade of notes that flooded the air. Watson’s harmonies blended with the voices of Rawlings and Welch, almost TOO perfectly. As if he had been playing with them for the past decade or two, not just for some records and a couple weeks on tour here and there. Like a glove.
Rawlings made a comment at one point about how he was running a song earlier, and never played it on stage before, but it sounded pretty good so he was thinking he would run it. Though, he said, “it has a lot of words.” Welch looked at him and remarked something along the lines of, “Well just give us some fair warning,” as she fiddled with the capo on her guitar neck, anticipating the singer and guitarist’s next move. I can say this, I am damn glad he went for it and judging by the audience reaction — both when they realized what song he was playing and at the end of it — validates my thoughts as well.
The second set began with a deep and moving version of “Ruby” off of the Machine’s 2009 debut Friend of a Friend. I had to cover my face a bit and shield it from the judgement of my old man, who I was at the show with, as a tear trickled down my face. Just, wow. Haas was doing something on that fiddle that took me to another place. She was a perfect addition to this group. She followed the sometimes unimaginable runs that Rawlings took on his archtop with poise, grace, and speed. And holy shit, the speed. Haas is as tasteful and talented of a player as they come, and I do believe I have found myself a new favorite fiddle player.
Moving to the back of the band, I think its just a matter of time before the world gets a Paul Kowert solo record. The upright bassist pulled double low end duty, singing the baritone as he played the bass on the Bill Monroe classic “He Will Sets Your Fields on Fire.” If there isn’t a Paul Kowert fan club, you can feel free to sign me up as the president. I love this guy. He’s one of the most understated, talented folks in the business, all while remaining so incredibly humble. I think its safe to say the ladies in the crowd went a little nuts, as Rawlings tried to give Kowert his due with a good ol “PAUL KOWEEEEEERT ladies and gentleman!” The bassist bashfully nodded his head and went back to being the glue of the quintet on stage.
“Shorthaired Woman Blues” was my favorite track off of the new record and the live version did not disappoint. An immeasurable amount of energy and fierceness was present on stage as Rawlings bounced and danced about, almost trying to pull as much out of that small bodied guitar as it would give. He brought it to the brink, but eased it back again.
Then another Watson-led tune gave us some good ol audience participation in the traditional “Stewball” and the Wilbur boomed with the resonant voices of the entire crowd. I again lost my cool during “Method Acting” and into “Cortez the Killer.” So much emotion and zeal were burned into this performance, it was inconceivable to think people could play that well, sing that well together, and make the music that they do. Rawlings’ fretboard might as well have gone up in flames with his breaks during this tune, as they built and built and built into the Neil Young portion of the medley.
The encores were of epic proportions. Both of them. Boston couldn’t get enough of the band, and the Welch-led “Look at Miss Ohio” was a pleasant surprise for old fans. With “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” we could have been left with a better night of music than 99.9% of every show I have ever attended, but that wasn’t quite enough for the Machine. They came back for a cover of The Band’s “The Weight.” This just confirmed for me that Welch has one of the most beautiful, natural, real voices on planet Earth. The band switched up verses, taking a turn and tossing a solo over the verse to Haas, as she emulated the melody of the vocals with perfect tone and pitch, on her fiddle. You could almost hear words as she played. Watson’s voice was pure bliss as he took his verse. Full of heart, pure and simple, is how that man sings. Genuine and heartfelt. And again, the crowd went wild when Kowert took the fourth verse. I tell you again, this boy better keep singing because his voice is pure and angelic.
The chemistry that the five of these artists share is astonishing. Typically, if you take five incredible talents and put them on stage, one will shine brighter than the others. Rather than try to one-up or overplay, however, this quintet merges their styles and personalities into something that is breathtaking. The collective voice of Rawlings and Welch has always been one I admire and look to as what great music and dynamic chemistry can pour out. But the addition of Watson, Haas, and Kowert was something completely magical. Rawlings is often times overshadowed by his guitar work, but his voice is one of the finest in roots music today. Plus, the guy’s guitar playing is beyond human. I firmly believe that he is one of the most influential and original guitar players of all time. His style is unlike any others and he marches to his own beat. Respect garnered is so well deserved by this musician and songwriter.
The Machine live show experience last night will be the gauge at which I measure and judge each and every live show I take in for the rest of my life. I just hope a handful of what I see in the future can measure up to Rawlings and Co., and the pure soul and heart they spilled on the stage last evening.