On November 20th, the Dave Rawlings Machine kicked off its seven-date tour with “Will the Circle be Unbroken” and ended with “The Weight.” They were appropriate bookends for a tour that looks overwhelmingly to be about the pleasure of American song and music making.
“Everybody flew into Nashville last night, so the band’s been together about 24 hours,” Gillian Welch, Rawling’s perennial other half, said from the stage of Knoxville’s Bijou Theater. Rawlings chimed in, “So it’s not as well-oiled a machine as maybe it could be.” But being a well-oiled machine isn’t the point of this tour at all. This is find-the-flow, get-in-the-groove music making. A celebration of the joy of song. That Wednesday night, it was magnificent.
All of the machine parts worked together smoothly, of course. Everybody who was on stage is a virtuoso. In addition to Rawlings and Welch, the machine is comprised of former Old Crow member Willie Watson on guitar and banjo, Punch Brother Paul Kowert on upright, and the mighty John Paul Jones on mandolin. These are folks who know their instruments intimately and passionately. But you could tell by the second song that everyone’s virtuosity was going to be transcended.
Over two long sets, the band was a single star, not a backup group for Rawlings. The five-part harmonies were subtle and tight, Jones holding down a low bass end, the individual voices sometimes becoming indecipherable from the whole. Watson and Welch, each dressed for Little House on the Prairie, sang lead on a handful of tunes, including “Wayside” and Charley Jordan’s “Keep it Clean,” Welch’s voice haunted or belting, Watson’s a down-home call. Jones played mandolin like you’d expect a musician formed in the riffage of Zeppelin to play, frequently killing runs along the neck, occasionally twining leads around Rawlings’ guitar work. And you’re simply not going to find a better acoustic guitar player these days than Rawlings. The man can shred.
We heard Rawlings-Welch songs and a Flatt & Scruggs number, a Ryan Adams cover and “Cortez the Killer” threaded into a cover of Bright Eyes’ “Method Acting.” “Sweet Tooth” was as magical as anything I’ve ever witnessed on stage. “Bells of Harlem” was gentle and lilting and lovely. A big white grin kept breaking out of the shadows beneath Rawlings cowboy hat and the guy repeatedly turned to his friends with the head-wagging enthusiasm of a puppy. The atmosphere in the theater was, more than any recent show I can recall, an atmosphere of fun, and everything coming from that stage felt deeply true.
And the audience gave it back. There were at least five standing ovations, sing-alongs, and by the end women screaming and dancing across the carpet at the back of the house. “I Hear Them All” segued into “This Land is Your Land” — the band including the oft-ignored verses about The People being relegated to the relief office and the defiance that wells up at a No Trespassing sign—and the air went goosebump-electric, the house knowing those verses, loving their preservation, and screaming, whooping, raising fists. The audience as well as the musicians were people who know their roots, who are moved in spirit by the music and the message, and that is a deeply gratifying community to be part of. When Rawlings finally introduced Jones near the end, the roar was deafening, and during an encore of “Queen Jane Approximately” the world seemed giddy. We demanded more, and so the Machine whipped out “Going to California” and “The Midnight Special” before trading lyrics on that final cover of The Band. There was legacy and lore wrapped up in Wednesday’s show, from those in the seats as well as those on the stage. It made me feel lucky to be alive. Long live rock and roll.