Dave Rawlings Machine, the Warfield, Oct. 19, 2015: According to my records, I last saw the Dave Rawlings Machine (not to be confused with Gillian Welch) in 2010. I think the band came through San Francisco during the interim, but I must've been out of town, because there's no way in hell I'd miss them otherwise. Oh wait, DRM played Hardly Strictly last year, but I was camped out at a different stage for Mavis Staples. It happens! Moral of the story: It's been way too long.
During this interim, the band has transformed. Whereas the first record felt like a charming, casual collection of tunes, the new record sounds more deliberate, more somber, and more complicated, and perhaps it's more of a statement of DRM's evolving musical direction. It's impossible to overlook the Neil Young influence, but better-informed minds can cite better candidates than I can. (Keep in mind that my idea of roots music is the first two Roxy Music albums.) Also, though DRM has always been a collaborative affair, this tour seem to cement the group-oriented feel, with dedicated extra band members Willie Watson, Paul Kowert, and Brittany Haas.
I feel like this record's biggest statement is its growing contrast with the Gillian Welch albums. Yes, they write the songs together and work collaboratively every step of the way, but good luck finding strings or piano on a Gillian record. Early on, when DRM was kind of an occasional treat and side project, their differences were harder to pinpoint, but I can hear it more clearly now (and not only in the voices).
However, the format of their show endures with a sparse setup (now doubled to two tables) and no amps to speak of. Instead, they made do with several microphones, a couple of banjos, a few guitars, a stand-up bass, two fiddles/violins, and probably more harmonicas than we could see.
Dave and Gill often like to facetiously comment on their professionalism, and you'll never mistake their show for a Vegas production -- but that's not why you see Dave and Gill. At times, they have starts and stops and pauses, but overall, it's always a warm, laid-back affair. Dave was clearly the driver, but they shared the spotlight at times. Of course, some dude yelled for "Miss Ohio" early on, but that didn't happen. Instead, Gill's solo song was "Wayside/Back in Time," which is kind of a no-brainer in San Francisco. Also in a nod to San Francisco (probably), they did a Grateful Dead cover of "Candyman," appended to Dylan's "Dear Landlord." Of course, though I can't possibly describe what he does, remember that Dave has a way of working beautiful, unexpected guitar riffs into every song to leave you wondering how he can carry it off.
Willie Watson got a couple of numbers, and Paul Kowert stepped out as the bass voice on "Fields of Fire" and "The Weight." I have to admit that Willie is not my cup of tea, though I know he and Old Crow Medicine Show have a strong following. Paul Kowert, however, was great, and I wish we could hear more of him with both DRM and Punch Brothers. Brittany didn't sing, but she took a couple of highlight turns, such as on "Method Acting/Cortez the Killer."
Among the new songs, "Pilgrim" was my favorite, with the long outro and mingled voices, and both "The Trip" and "The Weekend" are worth your patience as the songs unfold. After the show, I couldn't stop thinking about the trio of songs as a chronicle of road life or maybe an existential journey. Short of sitting down with the lyrics in front of me, I have nothing else to add to the thought bubble, but I'd love to hear any comments on the topic.
Obviously, Dave and Gill are not a pop act, and they don't rely on hits ("Miss Ohio" aside) to attract their audience. Nonetheless, we fans come to the show for certain gems -- often the traditional tunes we never would've heard otherwise. Though a little twang goes a long way for my tastes, I love Dave and Gill doing "He Will Set Your Fields on Fire." I chalk it up the sublime combination of voices and impeccable timing, and it puts a huge smile on my face.
Dave and Gill have amassed such a deep catalog that they're bound to miss a song you were dying to hear, but hopefully, they'll include one you haven't heard in a while, if at all. I gotta admit I've been craving a rendition of "Queen Jane Approximately," but alas, not tonight.* Instead, we got "The Weight," followed by "Go to Sleep You Little Baby," both of which make a ton of sense when you have all those singers onstage.
I can name on one hand all the bands/performers I'd drop everything to see. Make no mistake: Dave and Gill are in that group. Whatever name they take, I'll be there for their next date.
* During Robyn Hitchcock's set at this year's Hardly Strictly, it occurred to me that Gillian, Dave, and Robyn all do songs about queens and Elvis. Wouldn't it be great to hear them mashup their tunes? Come on, the world needs "Queen Elvis Approximately" and "Queen Elvis Presley Blues"! I know they can do it -- let's make it happen.
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