It’s been ten long years since neo-traditional Americana institutions Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings blew minds and melted hearts in a live setting in this country, and the sense of pent up longing is palpable in the air tonight as the dynamic duo, together with crack backing band, enter the stage to a rapturous reception from the packed crowd of true devotees who have gathered en masse to celebrate their return.
Having played the previous night at The Tivoli under the Gillian Welch banner, tonight sees them morph seamlessly into their alternative guise of the Dave Rawlings Machine, a showcase for Welch’s trusty guitar slinging side-kick to assume the vocal spotlight and showcase material from across his ouvre, with a particular focus on most recent Dave Rawlings Machine album Nashville Obsolete.
With an opening salvo of The Weekend, Bodysnatchers and Pilgrim, what is immediately apparent is just how well the space and acoustics of The Triffid suits the dynamic of this magical collective. The harmonies and musical prowess emanating from the stage are perfectly showcased within the ex-aircraft hangar confines of the venue, delivering a plethora of spine tingling moments throughout tonight’s bumper two-set performance.
Rawlings proves more than adept at holding a tune and as a guitarist he’s up there with the best, his clean, precise and economical six-string work a throwback to the early rock and roll days of Sun Records. His playing is a joy to behold, often eliciting whoops of appreciation from the crowd whenever he decides to sonically embelish proceedings with his flat picking style and unique moves, delivered via his signature vintage Epiphone guitar.
While Welch is very much in the support role tonight, her stately ‘lost in the moment’ presence, providing magnificent vocal and instrumental accompaniment, cannot be underestimated. She also steps up a few times to deliver songs from her own catalogue, with Wayside/Back in Time and Look At Miss Ohio unsurprisingly receiving reverential responses.
While the spotlight is rightly on our two main protagonists, the virtuosity of each cog in the Machine tonight is beyond reproach. To the right of stage good pal and Old Crow Medicine Show stalwart Willie Watson is an understated star in his own right, his vocal harmonies and musical dexterity (switching from guitar to banjo and fiddle at various stages) a constant joy, mesmerising in his own right but never overbearing, a perfect musical foil. He also steps up to the plate to deliver a rollicking version of one of his own numbers, the barnstorming Keep It Clean, achieving yet another high watermark moment in a set of ever consistent peaks. And delightful fiddle player Brittany Haas and double bassist Paul Kowert slot seamlessly into proceedings, with Kowert also taking the lead impressively on old time bluegrass classic He Will Set Your Fields On Fire.
Highlights abound so often that selecting favourites becomes an exercise in personal preference, each track somehow managing to assume top notch status, the mood joyous and the crowd lost in revelry, etched with permanently plastered grins for the entirety of the performance. Rawlings and Watson also prove adept at humorous between song banter, from tales of tuning banjos to a self depreciating take on their penchant for denim attire keeping the crowd regaled throughout.
The first half of tonight’s two-set treat flashes past in a joyous blur, and we’re left with 20 minutes or so to somehow gather ourselves before returning to the arena for a repeat dose. With a loving reverence for source material and influences it’s unsurprising that a tasty selection of covers are interspersed throughout the evening. A rollicking take on early Ryan Adams number To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High), which was co-written by Rawlings, makes a welcome appearance, while the end of the set sees a note perfect take on Bob Dylan’s Queen Jane Approximately. And by the time we’re in encore territory the Machine are seamlessly blending Bright Eyes track Method Acting into Neil Young’s Cortez The Killer, before going out on a gorgeous high with The Band’s much loved singalong The Weight, leaving all and sundry on a weekend lasting rapture of awe and inspiration.
This machine may not kill fascists (hell they probably could pull that trick as well!) but slaying audiences is very much par for the course. It’s a well-oiled machine to be sure, every note and vocal harmony warm and perfectly pristine, yet it’s far, far from clinical, international treasures to be sure for their ability to deliver non-mawkish authenticity and respect to their timeless influences. Fingers crossed it’s not another ten years before Rawlings and his Machine roll back into town and treat us to a repeat privilege.
Feature image: photography was not allowed at this event, so a press shot has been used.