Review by Bill Tokash
Seems fitting that the David Rawlings Machine played Thalia Hall this time around. This amazing venue, originally modeled after the Prague Opera House when constructed in 1892, was the center of Pilsen’s Bohemian community for 70 years until it was shuttered in the 1960s. Since this landmark status venue reopened in 2013, it has become the musical epicenter of a gentrified Pilsen by continually hosting, what I would argue, is the most diverse blend of quality musical acts in Chicago.
For better or worse, now, its hard to pin down exactly what the new Pilsen is. So too with the David Rawlings Machine’s musical style, but clearly for the better. A little too bluesy/swingy to be classified as folk, and a little too old-timey to be considered traditional bluegrass. And by mixing in a wee bit more of an anthemic Hippie Country sound over the years, David and Gillian Welch are way too goddamn perfectly remarkable to be lumped in with the Soulless Coffee Shop Music genre that some Americana music has become. They are, simply, just about one of my favorite acts right now, and they came to Chicago on this perfectly cool summer night on the heels of the release of Poor David’s Almanack to bring their ‘Hardly Strictly’ sound to a near sellout crowd.
In addition to being backed by Gillian and her usual rock solid rhythm guitar, David Rawlings Machine benefits instrumentally from damn near virtuosic backing by Brittany Haas on fiddle, Willie Watson on guitars etc., and Paul Kowert on stand-up bass. When these pieces get mixed together to compile their musical collage, the glue that keeps all the pieces on the posterboard is the soaring and searing two-parts vocals so beautifully weaved by Dave and Gillian. There may not be two voices that fit together better in my mind than these two since maybe Emmylou and Gram. Take all this and top it off with the sheer joy that Dave exudes when he plays, and you get a ‘Can’t Miss’ type of experience.
Despite all the genre posturing herein, the David Rawlings style subset I like best is the footstomping speed twang, exemplified by songs like It’s Too Easy, Bill Monroe’s He Will Set Your Fields on Fire, and to a certain extent on Ryan Adam’s To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High), which is one of those covers that is even better than the excellent original version. Other highlights of the three-encore set for me included Miss Ohio, which was fully equipped with another one of David’s gooseflesh-raising solos, The Last Pharaoh, (which my oldest daughter kept humming all weekend when I played it, despite claims she doesn’t like it J), and Short-Haired Woman Blues. The raucous crowd also enjoyed the hilariously cheeky new song Yup as well as Willie’s rendition of Charlie Jordan’s Keep It Clean.
When Dave et al. came out for the second encore, he seemed a little flabbergasted by the audience’s enthusiasm, and stated, that “y’all are in for the long haul tonight, I guess” as they spun into an extend-o version of A Friend of a Friend’s Method Action/Cortez the Killer. Its always appealing to me when artists tries to match the enthusiasm of an audience. And that’s its exactly that kind of exuberance you get with the David Rawlings Machine.
Money is the Meat in the Coconut
Come on Over My House
Wayside/Back in Time (Gillian Welch cover)
To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High) (Ryan Adams cover)
Keep It Clean (Charley Jordan cover)
The Last Pharaoh
It’s Too Easy
Ruby (Gillian Welch cover)
Good God a Woman
Short Haired Woman Blues
He Will Set Your Fields on Fire (Bill Monroe cover)
I Hear Them All / This Land Is Your Land (Old Crow Medicine Show cover)
If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down (Blind Willie Johnson cover)
Look at Miss Ohio (Gillian Welch cover)
Queen Jane Approximately (Bob Dylan cover)
Method Acting/Cortez the Killer (Bright Eyes/Neil Young covers)
Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad (Henry Whitter cover)
Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby (traditional cover)