Dave Rawlings Machine
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013

Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch have played Cat’s Cradle both as a duo and in full-band Dave Rawlings Machine form, and they’ve been a treat to take in at such an intimate venue, regardless of the format. But Sunday night’s show—one of just seven on a Dave Rawlings Machine tour of the Southeast—upped the ante with a star-studded lineup.

Joining Rawlings and Welch were John Paul Jones on mandolin, the Punch Brothers’ Paul Kowert on bass and former Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson on guitar, fiddle and banjo. A cast of that caliber—particularly Led Zeppelin member Jones, who’s accustomed to rooms far bigger than the 750-capacity Cradle—might have overshadowed Rawlings and Welch, but the players proved to be vital cogs in the Machine.

Although this iteration of the Machine has been together less than a week including rehearsal time, you wouldn’t know it from listening to them. Jones was an admirable instrumental foil to guitarist Rawlings; each played with restraint when appropriate but shredded a solo when it came time to let it rip. They often wound their leads around one another’s playing, using each other as a springboard. Watson and Kowert excelled when they broke out the bows for slower numbers, while longtime Uncle Earl and Toubab Krewe fiddler Rayna Gellert sat in on several numbers and fit right in.

Save for “How’s About You,” the group worked through the entirety of Rawlings’ 2009 debut A Friend of a Friend. The golden chorus of “Ruby” was radiant with four-part harmony, while the medley of Bright Eyes’ “Method Acting” and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” moved from a showcase of the perfect intertwining of Rawlings and Welch’s voices to an extended instrumental workout. The hymnlike “I Hear Them All”—performed as a trio with Rawlings, Welch and Watson—turned from a reverent sing-along to a rallying cry as it transitioned into Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and back, receiving one of the night’s loudest ovations.
Performances billed as the Dave Rawlings Machine typically turn out as more of a musical revue, and this one was no different. Watson and Welch each took multiple turns on lead vocals, the latter delivering two of the strongest songs in her catalog: “Look at Miss Ohio” and “Wayside/Back in Time.” Kowert also had a featured vocal on “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire,” an old gospel number.

Throughout the night, the group pulled largely from an updated American songbook. Bookended by “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “The Weight,” the show—which spanned a pair of hourlong sets, plus two encores that added nearly another 30 minutes—included traditional classics such as “Turn Your Radio On,” “Stewball”) and “Midnight Special,” as well as tunes by songwriting legends Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard.

It wasn’t until Jones finished his solo in Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” for second set’s finale that the good-humored Rawlings finally introduced him, the audience erupting appropriately in a true rock ’n’ roll moment. Rawlings led off the first encore by singing the Zeppelin classic “Going to California,” giving Jones and his mandolin another moment in the spotlight, even if he was clearly content to play in the shadows. It was evidence of the magic between Rawlings, Welch and their Machine mates that the crowd seemed to prefer that arrangement just fine.