The Dave Rawlings Machine was explosive from start to finish.
Midway through last night's show, the Dave Rawlings Machine rolled to the curb for a rest when Ketch Secor looked up from tuning his fiddle and asked, "How are the Packers doing?" No one answered. The game was blinking over the bar at the High Noon Saloon, but no one knew the score. Secor chuckled. "Well God bless them," he said, then bowed the walk-in notes to a raging gospel number, "Set This World on Fire."
It takes a very shiny thing to divert a bar full of Wisconsinites from a Packer game. From start to finish, the David Rawlings Machine was a strobe light: Explosive from start to finish, pitching audience members around the sold-out room like crash test dummies during one song, soothing them like little babies the next.
It doesn't matter whose name they perform beneath. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are indeed a machine, a machine with powerful parts. Secor was joined by guitarist/vocalist Willie Watson and bassist Morgan Jahnig to round out the ensemble. In their other life they make up 3/5 of the power string band Old Crow Medicine Show. They also contributed to the tour's CD, A Friend of a Friend, which is, incredibly, Rawlings' first record under his own name. The disc fueled about half of last night's thrilling 22-song set.
The heart of the duo's deal has always been Rawlings' guitar. Rawlings doesn't play his big, coffee-colored, hollow body Epiphone so much as he squeezes, strokes, chokes and does just about everything but blow into it. The show started with some simple brush strokes on his vintage instrument. Then Secor's harmonica entered and popped the clutch on the song, stroking alive a locomotive engine, rushing the riff, eventually propelling the band into the old time train tune "Monkey and the Engineer," from the new CD.
No sooner did that song pull into the station then the band surprised everyone by gliding into a delicate cover of the Grateful Dead's "Candyman." The song may be about a drug dealer, but the melody was a fresh wonder. The musicians opened up like a children's book by slowing it down even more than the original. The four-part harmony was heaven-sent, each voice a silhouette over the next. It silenced the house, with nothing but the whir of furnace fans filling the long dots of time between the performers' simultaneous breaths.
Things got all bowlegged with a barn fire version of the hillbilly standard "Hot Corn, Cold Corn." Afterward, "I Hear Them All" took the crowd to church and segued into a faithful version of "This Land is Your Land." The slim, smiling Welch cradled her Gibson Hummingbird, a dream in denim and sleeveless V-neck.
The High Noon was teeming with some of Madison's best musicians (including drastically talented openers Josh Harty and Shauncey Ali). Rawlings' guitar style knocked the breath out of them all. His black velvet bag of tricks is deep and lined with emotion. During solo breaks Rawlings disappeared into musical rabbit holes, apparently forever, leaving the listener wondering if the song would ever come back but never caring if it did or not. Without warning he simply emerged, poked his head up just in time for the next verse, like nothing happened. During his extensive solo on "Ruby," he alternated soft-picked harmonics with brutal eighth-note strikes, taking the serenity of the song and making it worry. This solo even had Secor's head shaking in disbelief. He enjoyed the aftermath of it, standing and smiling, at the happy expense of coming in on his fiddle.
On faster numbers like the lovably naughty "Sweet Tooth," Rawlings wound out the music in his instrument as though it was a monkey crank organ. He made his guitar notes chase after his singing, daring them to catch him and take over. Until they did.
Time, the Revelator, the 2001 blockbuster CD recorded under Welch's name, was delivered from way up high in the mountains. "A Friend of a Friend" rolled way down low into the heart of the dust bowl. "It's Too Easy" was strife straight out of the Depression made hopeful by Rawlings' capable clawhammer banjo and twin fiddles of Secor and Watson.
Twice during the set the Old Crow boys left the stage leaving Rawlings and Welch to run the machine on their own. Rawlings said they ate dinner at the Eldorado Grill. He shared that that put them in mind to sing the cowboy song "Diamond Joe," which they did with the pure pleasure of adding a song they loved to the play list on the fly.
The sold out room filled up immediately after the doors opened at 7 p.m. With all the tables and chairs gone, the main floor was a pine forest of people. Welch and Rawlings are able to sing extremely personal songs without a cent of falseness, sentimental without selling it out. This makes for particularly good couples music, and everywhere you looked lovers stood loving as they listened, arms all around their mates.
At 10:15 the bartenders were leaning against the back rail, arms folded across their chests, grinning. Nothing to do even though the place was packed. The show wasn't even half over and Rawlings had managed two magic tricks never before seen in the Badger State. Not only did he make a roomful of 'Sconnies forget all about their Packers, he made them forget all about their drinking.