Here’s my declaration of the week, boys and girls: Dave Rawlings is this time around’s Townes Van Zandt without the tragedy – just the front-porch soul.
Need proof? Try a copy of A Friend of A Friend (released as an album by the “Dave Rawlings Machine,” but trust me: this is a showcase for Rawlings’ talents as singer/guitarist/songwriter/song interpreter/and producer). What we have here are Rawlings and friends (including Rawlings’ longtime partner, musical and otherwise, alt-Americana-or-whatever-you-want-to-call-it queen Gillian Welch) letting it fly on a mix of originals and covers, love and laughter, sweetness and goof, pain and pleasure. And it’s so good they make it sound easy.
Rawlings and Welch share writing credits on a number of the tunes on A Friend of a Friend. “Ruby” leads things off with a melody that might make you snap your head around and stare at the speakers, saying, “What does that remind me of?” (I’ll save you the agony: “Oh Girl”/Chi-Lites/1972.) Beautiful weaves of strings and keys along with swooping acoustic bass and Rawlings’ guitar (how does he get that sound out that old Epiphone?) could break your heart all by themselves; the hopeless-yet-hopeful vocals will finish you off. “Sweet Tooth” is just plain fun ala early Hot Tuna, while “It’s Too Easy” is a rollicking fiddle-fueled stomp, yips and all. The ghost of ol’ Hank Williams stivvers through “How’s About You” (with sweet piano tinkles by Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers).
You might have heard “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” before, but not like this. Co-penned by Rawlings and Ryan Adams, “To Be Young” manages to come out stomping, takes a turn for the wistful, and then cranks it on and spins up the gravel to finish things off. (Adams’ version sounded more like a straight-ahead rockabilly Steve Earle.) Centerpiece of the album is the cover of Conor Oberst’s “Method Acting” which Rawlings and Welch eventually jam into Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer.” I don’t know how it sounds to you on paper, but I can tell you it’s a piece of work. The two guitars swirl and dance with each other like the old friends they are, making their way along without rushing it and capturing all the power and emotion of “Cortez” in a Crazy Horse-less unplugged setting. It’s ten minutes and twenty seconds of pure acoustic grace.
A Friend of a Friend finds the guy who’s been an MVP sideman for years leading the way and doing a masterful job of it. Take a bow, Dave Rawlings – you done good.