“We know that New York is a banjo-loving town,” said David Rawlings towards the beginning of the Dave Rawlings Machine concert Wednesday evening at the Beacon Theatre. How right he was. Rawlings, alongside his better-known musical partner Gillian Welch, haven’t played a headlining show in town since their last Beacon appearance in the fall of 2011. Their Beacon debut as Dave Rawlings Machine, the duo’s looser, more playful side project that features a rotating cast of supplementary musicians, was received with rapt enthusiasm and multiple standing ovations during the course of the group’s two-plus hour performance.
Touring behind Nashville Obsolete, the second album released under the Dave Rawlings Machine moniker and the band’s first proper album of original material, Rawlings and company focused their first of two sets on new material. New songs like “The Weekend” and “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)” are meandering, impressionist narratives brimming with Welch and Rawlings’ trademark pastiche, their many nods and references to countless folk standards and 20th century traditionals. Songs from “Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” to “St. James Infirmary,” to “Sunday Morning Coming Down” are just a few of the tunes namechecked in those DRM originals.
Compared to Welch and Rawlings’ typically naked acoustic-duo arrangements, the songs on Nashville Obsolete are highly orchestrated and expansive in scope. Those rich arrangements were handled masterfully by the Machine’s secret weapon, Crooked Still’s Brittany Haas on fiddle, who managed to reproduce the record’s full string section parts all by herself all night.
But the unabashed star of the evening was Rawlings and his singular guitar playing. While the arrangements on Nashville Obsolete don’t leave much room for soloing, on stage Wednesday night Rawlings took every possible opportunity to display his unparalleled mastery of his 1935 Epiphone. When performing, Rawlings often appears as though he’s in a trance, rocking his upper body in a rhythmic, circular motion as he plays his flat-picked, scale-based improvisation that can turn seven-minute minor chord dirges into arena-sized spectacles. Rawlings first truly let loose last night on “Keep It Clean,” one of two songs sung by charismatic sideman Willie Watson, who is a formidable solo artist in his own right.
Indeed, Dave Rawlings Machine at times can feel like a modern day iteration of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, with a relaxed cast of various musicians who could all carry a stage on their own but choose instead, in this setting, to take the back seat and sing lead on an occasional song or two. Gillian Welch, of course, is the primary example, singing just two songs, Soul Journey classics “Wayside (Back in Time)” and her signature “Look at Miss Ohio,” both of which provided two of the night’s biggest highlights. Paul Kowert of the Punch Brothers rounded out the quintet on upright bass.
Other standouts during the generous evening of music included “Sweet Tooth,” Rawlings and Welch’s extended playful allegory on temptation and desire that found the duo performing by themselves for the only time all evening. The evening’s most rowdy moment came during the first-set finale of “It’s Too Easy” when the group continued to speed up the song’s refrain to a frantic tempo before abruptly ending the song and taking a thirty-minute intermission.
As the group worked its way through several of Rawlings’s gentle folk lullabies like “Bells of Harlem” and “Ruby” the evening soon gave way to a selection of the group’s most well-known covers, most of which can be found on Rawling’s 2009 debut Friend of a Friend. Of their many artistic accomplishments, perhaps Rawlings and Welch’s greatest feat is their ability to flatten the timeline of past century of traditional American music, reimagining both mid-century bluegrass standards (“He Will Set Your Fields on Fire”) and early 21st-century indie laments (Bright Eyes’ “Method Acting”) in the image of their unmistakeable, haunting modern folk.
While the group’s encore — which centered on tried-and-true staples “This Land Is Your Land” and “The Weight” — might have tested any cynical folkies in the crowd, it was impossible to not appreciate, if not outright admire, Rawlings and Welch’s steadfast commitment to their humble folk mission after more than twenty years of playing together. The two singers are as responsible as anyone for the rock-solid resurgence of roots music as a semi-viable pop form over the past decade, yet on Wednesday night, the Dave Rawlings Machine insisted on removing all ego and ending their show with the most obvious, and important, of folk gestures: a simple song that everyone could sing.