Dave Rawlings Machine
Friday, January 8, 2016
For the most part, the eighth day of the year is far too early to crown anything as the best of the year. But Friday night’s Dave Rawlings Machine show at the Majestic Theatre made it feel like the best Americana concert of 2016 has already come and gone. In front of a reverential, near-capacity crowd, Rawlings and his partner in life and art, Gillian Welch, led this roots machine with a beauty and brilliance that will be more than difficult to match in the months moving forward for other Americana acts hitting town.
On top of the killer performance, the show carried the air of a true event, due in large part to the infrequency with which Rawlings and Welch record new albums and tour through this part of the country. It’s worth noting that since Rawlings and Welch last performed in Dallas in 2012, when the duo was touring in support of Welch’s last studio album, we’ve seen indie-country and Americana giants such as Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, John Fullbright, Old Crow Medicine Show, Shakey Graves and Shovels and Rope a number of times each. But once every few years is enough when the music is delivered as crisp and tight as the five-piece group of acoustic studs brought it on Friday.
Throughout the vast majority of songs, two elements were present and expertly proffered, resulting in the no-beats-missed show. The harmonies between Rawlings and Welch were sweet and powerful, especially in the show-opening “Ruby,” from Rawlings’ 2009 album A Friend of a Friend, and the dark yet ethereal “Body Snatchers,” one of the more stunning tunes from Rawlings’ most recent, widely praised effort, Nashville Obsolete. When the harmonies weren’t soaring toward the upper balcony of the grand old room, Rawlings was bringing the heat with applause-winning acoustic picking that made the set feel electric.
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The gorgeous, tight harmonies and on-point instrumentation repeatedly combined to make songs both fast and slow pulse with energy that a quiet coffeehouse or any sort of usual folk-loving establishment would likely be able to contain. The rambunctious rockabilly of “To Be Young (Is to be Sad, Is to Be High)” — a song made famous by Ryan Adams, but co-written by Rawlings — was able to transition into the delicate, sparsely arranged “Bells of Harlem,” when you could've heard a pin drop in the venue, if you weren't already mesmerized by what was going on up front.
Though the audience inside the classic, plush-seated theatre skewed a bit older than most of the shows going on in nearby Deep Ellum, and the music certainly lent itself to sitting rather than dancing, it was by no means a sleepy crowd who showed up. Good-time hoots and hollers added to the rustic front porch feel that was authentically conveyed through fiddle, banjo and a thumping upright bass. Sing-along moments such as when “I Hear Them All” gave way into arguably the greatest, most significant folk song of all time, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” a politically powerful and relatable tune as timely now as it was almost a hundred years ago. Goosebumps were as unavoidable during that moment as they were at the end of the night when, after performing Welch’s beloved 2001 ode to the King, “Elvis Presley Blues,” each band member took a turn singing the Band’s “The Weight,” during which the crowd sang along even more fervently than earlier.
Rawlings titled his album Nashville Obsolete in order to honor thoughts, practices and items that still have worth, even when society forgets them. After this special show, it’s not lost on us that impeccable performances and masterfully written songs will never experience obsolescence as long as artists such as Rawlings and Welch are recording and touring.