Though I've been spending a lot of time at other venues lately, I sincerely love San Francisco's bona fide musical palaces. The reigning champ is the Great American Music Hall, especially when the bookers nab the likes of the Dave Rawlings Machine.
Dave Rawlings Machine, Great American Music Hall, March 24, 2009: Knowing how much San Francisco adores Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, I lost sleep hesitating a single day to buy tickets to this show. I actually had some weeks to spare, but as expected, the duo sold out the Great American Music Hall and inspired one of the more amusing streams of Craigslist posts of late. On offer were not the usual dubious sums of money or even vague hints of sexual favors, but rather a whole farmer's market: organic sourdough bread, sandwich toppings, and quince cardamom butter. (What, no arugula?)
I'm not one to condemn gluttony, however. I know full well that I've seen the Rawlings Machine more often than most humans could possibly need, yet I step up to it again and again. And most times, it takes a lot more effort and machinations than catching the 38 Geary.
But convenience wasn't the only thing this gig had going for it. For instance, three very understanding newbies put up with my pleas and joined me (thank you, ladies!). And of course, there was the glorious Great American itself.
It's fair to ask a serial concertgoer what a performer/artist/band could possibly bring to each venue or town that compels us to return to these relatively static shows. I'm not sure my arguments for the subtleties we eat up--the dynamic arrangements, the hypnotic harmonies, the megawatt grins--could ever convince someone else to take the plunge. Instead, I'd turn that question around; I reckon it's more enlightening to consider what each locale brings to the musicians.
In San Francisco, this meant a downright doting crowd in an informal, intimate setting, all adding up to a lively show on both sides of the stage. By the third song, "I Hear Them All," the entire room joined David and Gillian in belting out the Woody Guthrie portion. Gillian duly complimented us on our abilities (the audience's tepid jokes, however, went unremarked); she'd hear more from us before the end of the night.
I've seen the Rawlings Machine so many times in the last few months that I've probably caught most of their standard repertoire: the originals, the collaborations, and the covers they favor. Still, I heard a couple of new-to-me songs, one sung by David and one Gillian solo turn on banjo. They might be originals or traditional tracks; with these two, it's always hard to tell.
But beyond the setlist, there were plenty more treats to go around. Without Morgan Nagler, they handled "Sweet Tooth" as a duo, and Gillian added some of the sassy inflections that I had always credited to the Whispertown 2000 singer. Elsewhere, David stumbled on the lyrics of a song or two, but in this open, unpretentious setting, it was more charming than distracting.
I'll say this about the Great American as opposed to Largo: Proximity counts. More specifically, I've always dug their version of "Queen Jane Approximately," but when you're standing a few feet from Dave Rawlings and watching him move his fingers faster and more nimbly across the guitar strings than you knew was possible (an unfortunate thought that crossed my mind: Man, he'd be great at Rock Band), you finally get it: Oh my god, they've transformed the original's meandering ebb and flow into a focused, full-blown tsunami. Now that's a cover.
Largo, however, had primed me for the "Method Acting"/"Cortez the Killer" segue, which nearly made me jump out of my chair earlier this month. Readiness does not, however, detract from delight; I remained the beaming, anticipating idiot in the front row.
They filled out their encores with additional beloved covers, but since I don't write these things down, I can't tell you exactly what they played. I know "White Rabbit" made it in there, with appropriate reverb and a huge helping hand from the audience, and I think Neil Young's "Tired Eyes" slipped in as well.
For the second/final encore, they brought out Mike McKinley from Harmony Grits on mandolin for three songs. Again, I can't recall all the titles, and I'm pretty sure I can't even name one of them--an old-timey number featuring David on banjo dueling with Mike for speed-picking honors--but there was no mistaking the closer: "Jackson," which almost made me fall out of my seat in February. (I never claimed to be graceful.)
A deliberate start, with Dave and Gillian facing each other, syncing up the rhythm on their respective guitars, gave way to a burst of music as soon as they started singing, and we were right there with them. The whole room was jumping, including the performers themselves, as we sang, danced, and whooped it up. It remains, of course, Johnny and June's song, but you can't deny that David and Gillian's version holds its own as well.
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