I have not seen a show as good as the Dave Rawlings Machine, who performed at Music Box Supper Club on Monday, in quite some time. Understand that, for someone who has seen a fair amount of concerts in his day, that’s a major endorsement.
When Willie Watson from Old Crow Medicine Show (who played guitar, fiddle, and mandolin) led the band onstage, I about peed my pants. Paul Kowert from Punch Brothers handled the upright bass, and Brittany Haas shined throughout on the fiddle. This crack outfit surrounded one of Nashville’s finest couples in Dave Rawlings, who is touring behind his latest release Nashville Obsolete, and the brilliant Gillian Welch. There was no need for an opening act when this much talent was gracing the stage.
Rawlings, one of the more accomplished acoustic guitar and banjo pickers in the business, opened the show with “Hot Corn Cold Corn,” to give the packed house an Appalachian old-time feel, then followed it with “The Weekend.”
A beautiful rendition of “The Trip” -- with a choru that sings, “So take a trip wherever your conscious has to roam / It's much too hard to try to live a lie at home” -- put the spotlight on Rawlings' first of many acoustic guitar solos. Next, the spotlight shined on Welch who sang “Back in Time” before the band turned it up a notch with “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High).” Haas was featured on the gospel “Bells of Harlem,” Watson took a turn singing “Keep it Clean,” and then it was back to Rawlings with “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home),” with Watson joining Haas on dueling fiddles.
The first set ended with Rawlings yelling over to Watson, “We need more fiddle!” Like Christopher Walken during the country stomper “It’s Too Easy,” as the song picked up speed toward an ultimately blazing finish.
Round two began with the gorgeous “Ruby” before Dave, Gillian, and Willie took turns on “The Last Pharaoh.” Following was "He Will Set Your Fields on Fire" -- a gospel song in four-part harmony, featuring Kowert's baritone vocals.
The band left Rawlings and Welch alone on stage for “Sweet Tooth” and then returned to play the fifth song on the set list from the new album, titled “Short Haired Woman Blues.” Watson performed his call-and-response sing-along “Stewball” before the obligatory classic “Miss Ohio” was sung by Welch, to the delight of the Cleveland faithful. The band closed out the second set with a fine rendering of Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately.”
So now the show was getting to the ridiculous level, and I was thinking, "Who needs an encore after that?" But the band turned the thermostat up to full-throttle for the finale. Opening this portion of the evening was “Ruby Ridge,” a song written by Peter Rowan about the site of a deadly confrontation in Idaho 23 years ago. Rawlings' vocals and guitar picking was featured on “Method Acting/Cortez the Killer,” from the previous Machine release A Friend of a Friend. Then they sent the crowd home with a rousing version of “The Weight,” as all but Haas took turns singing a verse. Needless to say, if this tour comes anywhere near your hometown, don’t ask questions. Just go.