The sold out performance at the Sheldon featured a handful of heavy hitters. Of course, Rawlings is never without his near 20 year counterpart, Gillian Welch, whose dark and densely lyrical folk songs have captured the imaginations of everyone who listens, like a siren song on the waves. Nor was he without his second shadow, a 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop that has become his signature guitar and sound.
The two have been recording albums, playing festivals and selling out shows wherever they go. Since the 2009 release of Rawlings's solo album, "A Friend of a Friend," he and Welch have been instrumental, pun intended, in bringing much of the new Americana sound to the forefront of music.
The Machine included a few very special guests. Double bassist Paul Kowert of Punch Brothers fame was there, as well as guitarist Willie Watson, from Old Crow Medicine Show, who has recently released his own solo record. There was also one Mr. John Paul Jones. Of a little band we all know and love. One named Led Zeppelin. While Jones is primarily known as a bass player, he has been keeping busy these days with one of his other favorite instruments, the mandolin.
The excitement in the room was galvanized, the crowd in a superlative mood. Everyone was a friend of a friend. I happened to sit next to Dave Hinson, owner of prestigious guitar shop, Killer Vintage, who reiterated that Rawlings and Welch were his longtime customers and friends. My eyes were as wide as dinner plates. This would be a night to remember.
The last time Rawlings and Welch came to St. Louis, they played the Pageant, and a brutal storm tore through the area. The power went out, but it didn't stop the show. And that brings me back to my original point: Dave Rawlings is a machine. Nothing stops him. He's a bluegrass Terminator 9000.
When the group took the stage, everyone stood and cheered before a note was played. It was a standing ovation before the show even began, and was indicative of the kind of night it was going to be. My mind kept replaying the idea that, in addition to the rest of the players, I was seeing one quarter of Led Zeppelin. In my book, this counts as seeing the entire band.
With such incandescent star power fueling the show, you would think you were witnessing a supernova from 35 feet away. The acoustics in the Sheldon are astounding, and can be achieved with very little technical support: only a few lights, and only two PA speakers resting atop two barstools in the corner for the microphones. That being said, the audience was forced to be extra quiet during their performance. When people started singing along, it would drown out the music.
As the show began, Rawlings made a quip into the microphone, but it was completely lost to the hoots and hollers of adoring fans, so Rawlings kicked out his half-moon smile beneath the shaded brim of his dingy white cowboy hat and the band leapt into "Turn Your Radio On," a gospel song from the 1930s, and one recorded by a number of artists.
Highlights from the first set included "The Monkey and the Engineer" and "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad Is to Be High)," a hit song that Rawlings co-wrote with Ryan Adams.
Rawlings holds his guitar at the hip, firing off arpeggios with blinding speed. He looks like he's rooted to the spot, moving in reverse, trying to summon a cobra of intonation and harmonic dissonance before effortlessly resolving guitar lines. In addition to asking Welch to sing lead on songs, Watson also sang lead on songs from his album. He has more of an old timey tone to his voice, a kind of singing holler that's closer to the original high lonesome sound of bluegrass. Meanwhile, Rawlings supported all with his high wire guitar work. The set was closed with a foot stomping, barn burning version of "It's Too Easy," where Rawlings cried out, "I need more fiddle!" Jones cast his mandolin aside, picked up a fiddle and began playing alongside Watson on the strings.
The second set showcased some more great songs that were well received. Welch took vocal lead on her song "Wayside / Back in Time." Kowert took the low-end vocal backup during "He Will Set Your Fields on Fire," followed shortly by Dave's inspiring rendition of "I Hear Them All," which he brilliantly segued into Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." Watson took another turn at the helm with his cover of "Stewball," giving a mini singing lesson for the audience, which they took full advantage of. They closed the set with a cover of Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately," and I almost lost my collective shit. Jones killed his solo before handing the lead back to Rawlings, the two smiling at each other constantly, clearly having the time of their lives.
The group played two full sets and was more than generous with a double encore. The fans truly appreciated it, shouting for songs, many from Welch's breakout album, Time (The Revelator). One girl was a bit more modest, crying out "Whatever you play, we will love it!"
Rawlings is adept at covering any number of popular songs and making them sound original, like brand new songs that you've never heard before, as very few musicians can. The first encore featured three covers, the first a stirring, bluegrass rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Going to California," and a perfect vehicle for Jones to take a lead solo on mandolin. Everyone played tactfully, as though handling a piece of glass. With Jones on stage, it also seemed fitting; the playful musical relationship between Jones and Rawlings shining again, and Rawlings came across as the Jimmy Page of flatpicking. It was a perfect match. Fan favorites "I'll Fly Away" and "The Weight" shortly followed.
The band left the stage and everyone assumed that was the end, as they started running for the door to beat the crowds to the bathroom and parking lots. Many probably missed out on the second encore, as the band came out again, letting Watson shine once more with his cover of Leadbelly's "Midnight Special," before the group put down their instruments to crowd around a single mic and sing and a cappella version of "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby," from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. It was soulful and flawless. This is, in all likelihood, probably the best show I'll see all year.
Dave Rawlings Machine came and went like the wrecking crew they are. They played what they played. And the crowd loved them for it. Not bad for a machine.