Thursday, January 08, 2009

hear them all

This might be a precedent for me: a 24-hour turnaround, in the middle of the week, all while putting in a full day at the (virtual) office. Foolhardy? Frivolous? Flagrant? A word that doesn't start with "f"? Judge if you must, but keep in mind that we're talking about David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and the first show of the year at Largo--a capital combo.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Largo at the Coronet, January 7, 2009: I was a bit baffled that this show wasn't listed as sold out; under Gillian's name, the duo packs much bigger venues. This gig wasn't even a secret, as it was noted on her Web site and mailing list. Sure, it was announced at a time when people are typically on vacation and away from their computers, and money can be tight after the holidays. But you'd think 300 people in a major metropolis/media hub would find their way to the Coronet.

As it turned out, the multitudes eventually arrived, and there was some scrambling before the show could commence. We weren't immune to this shuffling, but I'm happy to report that at least one of us got a surprise in their seating assignment.

After seeing David and Gillian's shows in the Little Room last month--not to mention that giddy, epic, almost hallucinatory night on Fairfax two-plus years ago--the biggest question for me was how they'd handle the move to the big room. Mind you, I always figured it was just a matter of time; Largo's main space is still a fraction the size of the venues the two typically play.

I can tell you what remained the same: their off-the-cuff manner, marked by David's admission after their first song, "Diamond Joe," that the planned portion of the evening had concluded. Gillian later commented that the show was simply an excuse to kick off the new year at Largo with friends and that they were merely the designated hosts.

Overall, their set comprised many of the songs the Rawlings Machine is known for and that we heard in the Little Room in December. We're talking about "Hear Them All/This Land Is Your Land," "Monkey and the Engineer," "Throw Me a Rope," and "Knuckleball Catcher." In fact, that sums up the first five songs of the night.

My notes break down after this because (1) I simply don't know several of the songs they played, (2) it's dark in the back of the Coronet, and (3) Gillian's promised "cavalcade of stars" joined in. What turned out to be a considerable roster of musician friends marked the biggest change from their show at the Little Room--well, that and David's lovely vintage suit. Don't think, however, that this revolving cast affected the show's overall tenor. There were no slick hand-offs or costume changes; the stage didn't revolve. Instead, David and Gillian excused themselves a number of times to duck behind the curtains and take account of the talent.

First up was Morgan Nagler of the Whispertown 2000 to reprise the "Sweet Tooth" (?) song they wrote together. I suspect you can read numerous double entendres in the lyrics, but it was an apt companion piece to "Big Rock Candy Mountain," sung--and partially flubbed--by David just a couple of songs prior.

As Morgan left, Benmont Tench and Don Heffington arrived, settling in as sort of the house band for much of the rest of the show. Benmont, of course, sat down at the piano, but Don, without a drum kit onstage, brought his own small snare drum and a set of brushes. They first kicked up "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)," then brought it down a notch with Harper Simon's appearance for two songs, one of his own and Neil Young's "Birds," sung with Gillian. For the latter, Sara Watkins also took her spot with them.

Harper's departure signaled Sean Watkins' arrival, and he fell in for a good run. My favorite selection from this segment was probably "River of Jordan." Though Sara was seemingly singled out for lead vocals, it became almost a four-fold chorus, with David, Gillian, and Sean chiming in too.

They didn't lose anyone when Willie Watson of the Old Crow Medicine Show stepped up. I was thrilled that their first choice was John Lennon's "Crippled Inside," but I didn't know their second song, "We're All in This Together," until informed after the concert. I saw Willie once before at the Watkins Family Hour, but his strong, distinctive voice rang out tonight.

Bonus: Benmont painted both songs with amazing details, though in entirely different ways. For the Lennon tune, he poured out the passion, then dusted the second song with the filmiest, prettiest notes you can imagine.

For me, the biggest surprise of the night came next: Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice. With David, Benmont, and Don, they sang "Love Hurts," currently a staple of their live set. But just as quickly, they were gone--to make way for Benmont's solo turn!

Not that it was intended as such--David egged Benmont on, then used the opportunity to check on the status of the next guest. Regardless, we took in Benmont all alone on the stage, the spotlight and our attention focused solely on him as he serenaded us with Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean." Benmont has always been a great sport and thrown himself into whatever situation Largo requires, but this was one of the purest expressions of his talent and inspiration I've yet seen.

Furthermore, David was able to take care of business during Benmont's segment and returned with the last guest of the evening: Jackson Browne. With David, Gillian, Benmont, and Don, Jackson did one of his own songs, and at the risk of sounding ever more repetitive, I'd like to report that Ben brought it on this tune. David and Gillian's harmonies were sublime, as well.

For the big finale, they invited everyone back, though not everyone took them up on the offer. But rather than list the absences, let's check out the returnees: Benmont, Don, Sean, Sara, Harper, and Willie. Together, they built up a fierce, sweeping "Queen Jane Approximately." With Benmont and Don setting a particularly bracing foundation, David was free to deliver driving vocals and a relentless guitar solo.

David and Gillian honored our calls for an encore, just the two of them covering Neil Young's "Tired Eyes." Then for the true end-all, Benmont and Don once more took their spots, David and Gillian urged excessive reverb from the sound booth (though still not enough, in my book), and they regaled us with another of their favorite covers, "White Rabbit." In this respect, the Little Room couldn't measure up; heady and intoxicating, Gillian's voice and David's guitar swirled to the farthest recesses of the Coronet.

It's gonna be a great year.

See also:
» please take my advice
» that's all they really want
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg
» any old time
» i'm not looking for a cure


nobody said...

I can't tell you how this hurts. I was turned away at the door trying to get in to the show on Wednesday. Luckily when I went back for last night's Watkins show Gillian and David still sat in for some tunes, but I can't believe I missed Jenny. They did the standard "I'll Fly Away," and reprised "River of Jordan" in the main set, then joined in the encores "Long Hot Summer Day" and David led the closer, "Blue Moon Of Kentucky." Otherwise it was not a standard Watkins show, as it was actually the premiere of their band, WPA with Luke Bulla, Glen Phillips, Benmont, Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher.

You going to see Jon tonight?


pneyu said...

I'm sorry to hear that! If it makes you feel better, Jenny didn't stick around, and that show we saw back on Fairfax remains the high-water mark. We heard that David and Gillian would be back the following night, but unfortunately, I live in another city. :) Have fun at Jon's show!

kurt said...

Thanks for posting. I was also turned away at the door. I didn't know the size of the room and their LA draw (I was in from Madison). Anyway, thanks for posting. Sounds like it was great!

Ginger said...

Wowowow, thanks for the detailed account. When you can't make it to the show it's so good to read a report from someone who could. Would love to have you in the DRM fan club on facebook ... discussion, notice of upcoming shows, etc.
Thanks again