(Not an actual picture from this concert.)
I’m trying something a little different with this post. I don’t go to concerts as much as I would like, but when I do, it’s usually an artist that makes the expenditure and (since I live in the middle of nowhere) travel worth it for me. In other words, the kind of artist who’s worth it for me to review. So when I do go to a concert, I’ll try to write about it.
Now, I have a complicated relationship with Dave Rawlings Machine. See, going on twenty-two years ago, Dave Rawlings came on the scene as the backup singer and lead guitarist for an extremely talented singer-songwriter named Gillian Welch. Some of you might well remember her from the award-winning “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack, in which she sang on two songs with Allison Kraus and company.
Her career has been one of quiet success, with the majority of her music being difficult-to-classify acoustic music with folk and country inflection, but with an entirely fresh, clean, airy texture based on her simple rhythm guitar and Dave Rawlings’ virtuosic acoustic lead. Her voice is usually tenor and her songs are usually sad, with the air of a hard life in the country or a marginal existence in the city. My favorite of her albums was “Time (The Revelator),” which brought this perfect texture to its most minimal. I can only think to call it “the new mountain music,” with its ringing, dulcimer-like tones and old-time influences. Driving in the Appalachians with that album on feels right.
So when Rawlings became the more dominant personality, to the point where she became a member of his band, the Machine, and they started making fun, up-tempo bluegrass and folk with a rich texture, you’d think I’d hate it, right? Initially, yes, I didn’t like it. It seemed like a shame for her to not be the main artist, and from lack of exposure, I had trouble convincing myself that Rawlings even had a personality outside of singing harmony and playing guitar. But then a friend told me how great their concerts were, and played their most recent album for me.
And let me tell you, I was sold almost immediately. The new music was nothing like Revelator, but it was great.
Birmingham was the nearest tour date this year, and despite the drive, I went. The Lyric is an upscale theater, and I was worried that there’d be the dreaded invisible wall between the performers and the sea of spectators below. But somehow, the band’s easy-going personalities and use of the downstage area made it an intimate performance in the best sense. Four of the band’s members stood in a row like an early rock band, with the bassist behind. They were not far behind the footlights, and it was more clear than at any other concert I’ve ever been to that they were there to have a good time and entertain the audience.
Welch, a tiny, bone-thin, white-haired woman in a flowing Victorian dress, opened the first song by hamboning the rhythm. I had never seen a woman do that, to be fully honest, not least one deathly thin as Welch was. I don’t even remember the opening song, to be honest, but the intro was one of the more memorable moments.
The band as it tours consists of David Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Willie Watson, all of whom play guitar and sing, Brittany Haas, who plays violin, and Paul Kowert, who plays bass and sings. Most of them can play the banjo, too.
And to my mind, these people could make music in any genre they wanted. Rawlings is a virtuoso, whose ability to solo melodically in any type of scale and mode puts many modern jazz guitarists to shame. Welch with her characteristic tenor has the range of Robert Plant and come to think of it, so does Rawlings. All five are fast, accurate, and able to improvise on their instruments. As a rock act, they’d be more than capable. But there is no question in my mind that modern bluegrass is the proper and fitting genre for them. It’s full of life, but capable of sad songs, fighting songs, religious songs and bawdy songs, and it shows off the full skills of the musicians in a very unique way.
There were almost too many highlights to go into. Nearly every song had a brilliant guitar solo from Rawlings, and many of them had breakdowns in which Haas and Rawlings traded solos. In the first set, the crowd seemed to enjoy “Yup” the most, a song about the devil taking an old nagging country wife only to find that she was too tough for him. It’s infectious, with a simple folk melody, the oddly catchy one-word refrain “yup,” and some very funny lines. The really shining moment has to be “There were two little devils with a ball and chain/she up with her foot and kicked out their brains… yup.” It’s still not the song that impressed me the most.
Nor was “Cumberland Gap,” a new take on an old bluegrass theme. It was brilliant, though, with a hard-stomping melody and an old-time ballad feel. “Cumberland gap, it’s a devil of a gap,” Rawlings sings, referring to a difficult crossing in the Appalachians near where Kentucky and Virginia run into Tennessee. My only complaint is that it sounds a lot like “Ohio,” by CSNY, but that cuts both ways, since “Ohio” sounds like a lot of old folk songs. I can’t really fault them for using such a perfect and ancient melody. Haas showed off a lot on this song, playing violin with classical precision, but in the old-time fiddle mode. She’s possibly the least extroverted member of the band, likely the youngest, but on songs like this, she holds her own.
Willie Watson showed he could also front the band on “Keep it Clean,” from one of his solo albums. He and Rawlings discussed whether it was a dirty song. Watson, who wrote it, claimed he didn’t know. The lyrics are incomprehensible, but the puerile male imagination runs wild on the suggestion, don’t you know? It was far more of a rhythm guitar-oriented stomper than most of the set. He also played his take on “If I Had My Way,” the classic blues song that Blind Willie McTell allegedly used to make a political statement in front of the Customs House in New Orleans in the 30’s. (You know what’s in there now? Butterflies.)
The first set was mostly taken from Dave Rawlings Machine’s most recent album, “Poor David’s Almanack,” with “Good God, A Woman,” “Come on Over My House,” “Money is the Meat,” “Guitar Man,” and “Airplane” showing up in addition to the songs from the album I already mentioned. And they jammed the hell out of them all. Probably every song exceeded its recorded length by a minute or more, and not one song felt like a let-down in the energy level. And while I’d criticized Rawling’s repetitive lyrics, it didn’t sound half as lazy live. Even the oddly-worded and awkward “Come on Over My House” worked in that setting.
At some point in the first set, Willie Watson came over to the side of the stage where Brittany Haas was playing violin and began playing another violin in harmony. This is one of the things that I love about music, the thing which compelled me in younger days to learn guitar and other instruments even when I didn’t feel like I was making progress: there’s just about nothing like making music with someone you like. It draws people together, like going to war together without the fighting, or romance without the complications. I’ve played guitar with at least two beautiful women I’d never have a chance with and with some of my closest friends; and to my mind, there’s nothing like it for enjoying each other’s company. So when I recognized what must have been this feeling between the two of them playing violin together, I was happy for them, even as I was nostalgic for old times and old friends.
Music, like any art, is supposed to portray the truth about the world–no one knows this better than Gillian Welch, I’m sure–but sometimes music can step outside the world and be an escape from it instead. I can’t find anything wrong with that, as much as some might.
The two full sets, or the main set with intermission, were already one of the great concerts of my life, but then came the encore. I don’t actually remember the first song they played after they ran back out during the ovation. The second or third, however, was “Method Acting/Cortez the Killer.” This is a medley of a Bright Eyes song that was fairly mediocre when the original artist recorded it, and a long Neil Young song off of “Zuma,” joined together by a long guitar solo. I haven’t actually heard the version from one of Rawlings’ albums, but I knew it from Rawlings and Welch’s NPR “Tiny Desk Concert,” and I had hoped they would play it.
I think both songs hit full bloom only when played in this fashion by Dave Rawlings Machine. Now, that’s a strong statement to make, considering one of those songs is a Neil Young song, and a well-loved and critically acclaimed one at that. But I believe it. The Bright Eyes song was just another pessimistic alt-rock number for singer Connor Oberst, who sung it without much emphasis and, honestly, didn’t convince me all that much. I mean, honestly, how old is Oberst, and how much does he actually have to be pessimistic about? I don’t actually know, but he sounds young and overly dramatic. But Rawlings and Welch have been projecting gritty, hard-earned life experience since they were his age, and that’s only become more true with time. Oberst’s line “But I know I feel better when I sing,” puts into words something very true of Welch and Rawlings, that they sing about their lives to make sense of them and feel better. It rings as true when they sing Oberst’s words as when they sang the last, life-affirming lines of “Acony Bell” twenty-odd years ago.
And then there’s “Cortez the Killer.” I’ve heard many people sing this song, and I think out of all of them, only Neil Young, Welch and Rawlings really get it. Young doesn’t get points for that because he wrote it, of course.
One thing I’ve always appreciated about Young is that he can write stories that take place in fantastic settings, but with emotional reality. When he spent his ambiguous night in a teepee with Marlon Brando and a Powhatan princess in the song called “Pocahontas,” it wasn’t just a tall tale. He really felt an emotion that made him long to know those people. When he time-travels, whether it’s back to see Pocahontas or forward to see the spaceships evacuating the chosen few from the dying Earth, and even if his time machine is a psychotropic drug, he’s nevertheless on an emotional journey, one that he doesn’t share with the world lightly. And this is another one of his time travel songs, I think.
In “Cortez the Killer,” Neil Young writes about an idealized and largely fictional Aztec Empire with a genuine yearning for a better place than here and now. But in the last verse, he blind-sides us with the line “And I know she’s living there, and she loves me to this day/I just can’t remember when and how I lost my way.” In the narrative, it seems his love is stuck in another time and another place. While this is probably a metaphor for love lost in a more conventional way, it’s still a hell of a metaphor. He’s stuck centuries from her, on another continent, and can’t find his way back. Haven’t we all felt that about someone or some situation? Too many poets and writers have tried to express this feeling for it to be uncommon.
And when this song is juxtaposed with the first one, both take on new meaning somehow. I don’t pretend to understand why this works, but it seems like “Method Acting” fits into the emotional narrative of “Cortez,” and that “Cortez” makes “Method Acting” more believable by giving the singer something else to sing about besides his pain. How does Connor Oberst feel better by singing, when the song is a meditation on the struggles of life? But by adding “Cortez,” Dave Rawlings is palpably moving on and singing about something else, and it makes the first song more believable. Meanwhile, by fitting neatly into the narrative of “Cortez,” “Method Acting” adds to the second song too. I think it’s like synergy.
“A language learned and forgotten turned is studied once again…” makes me imagine the time traveler from “Cortez” trying to relearn a language he spoke twenty years ago from his perspective, but hundreds of years ago in real time, so that when he goes back and finds that girl living in ancient Tenochtitlan, the language barrier won’t keep them separate a second longer than they have to be. Am I overthinking this? Of course I am.
And to see them perform it live, with the heightened emotions of a long concert and the memory of a very recent, very enthusiastic standing ovation: well, it was intense.
And then they followed it up by giving an a capella rendition of “Go to Sleep, Little Baby” which Welch sang on on the “O Brother,” soundtrack, before running back off-stage. Few people still have such a grasp on old-time vocal harmonies. It was a short song, but very sweetly done.
It was about eleven at night when I got out and two-thirty in the morning when I got home. I didn’t regret losing that sleep at all. For musicianship and emotional effect, I must say it was a fantastic concert, one I won’t soon forget.