Photo by Matt Riley
They say you are the company you keep, and if that’s the case David Rawlings seems to be doing just fine. Not that the man needs any comparison to his peers; his unique guitar style and classic songwriting ability has earned him his stripes with no extra help. But when a musician shows up with a band comprised of Gillian Welch, Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert, former Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson and none other than Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on mandolin, you know there must be something special about them. That was cast of David Rawlings Machine when they took the stage at the Wilma Theater on their latest tour, providing an intimate folk concert packed with favorites from start to close.
While Rawlings establishes himself as the group’s namesake for a reason, the performance was quick to encompass the collective frontperson talent of Welch and Watson by liberally passing songs around. Rawlings set the tone with “Monkey and the Engineer” before passing it to Watson for the clawhammer banjo-led “Dry Bones. Welch followed up with her tune “Wayside/Back in Time” before passing it back to Rawlings for the Woodie Guthrie tune “Going Down the Road,” and the multifaceted Machine was set in motion.
Rawlings has certainly made an impact on the folk world with his guitar playing, with a style that is slow and easy but so on point that he’s one of the few guitarists in the genre to elicit cheers from the audience at the beginning of his solos rather than the end. It’s apparent that he has found a melodic match in Jones, who proved his proficiency on the mandolin as soon as the sound technicians got the levels sorted. He and Rawlings often played in tandem when either player took a solo, providing counterpoints and weaving around each others’ note choices in natural harmony.
Songs including the Bob Dylan tune “Dear Landlord” and the Rawlings/Ryan Adams cowritten “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad Is To Be High)” rounded out the short first set before the group kicked off a second with the ballad “Ruby.” Everybody but Rawlings and Welch left the stage for “Sweet Tooth,” and Watson rejoined for the Old Crow Medicine Show tune “I Hear Them All” that transitioned into “This Land is Your Land,” a perfect bridge between generations of timeless folk music -something this group has an intimate control of. Another medley – Bright Eyes’ “Method Acting” into Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” – soon followed, each stitched together with tight improvisational transitions.
The group was generous with its encores, sailing through Zeppelin’s “Going to California” and Welch’s “Look At Miss Ohio” before leading the crowd through a jubilant extended singalong of The Band’s “The Weight.” A second return to the stage found the band gathering around a single mic for a serene version of “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” delivered in fine fashion from a group of musicians that have not only thoroughly studied roots music, but have also became a part of it.