Dave Rawlings Machine at The Sheldon Concert Hall – St. Louis 6/25/14
The five piece Americana string quintet put together by folk singer/songwriter David Rawlings is something really special. Rawlings has assembled an all-star cast of musicians that includes his partner in crime for the last 20 years Gillian Welch, former Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson, and Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert. He also found this guy they call John Paul Jones that used to play bass in a little band called Led Zeppelin, and he just so happens to be really good with a mandolin and friends with Rawlings.
Independently, you have five incredibly well respected musicians in their genre that each bring their own unique aspect to the Dave Rawlings Machine. Together, you have a five piece bluegrass/Americana powerhouse that put on what can only be described as one of the best live music experiences of my entire life in front of a jam packed crowd at the Sheldon Concert Hall last Wednesday, June 25.
The show started just after 8:00PM as the band came out and the crowd erupted… half the crowd rose to their feet and began wildly applauding before the first note was played. Without introduction Rawlings picked up his 1935 Epiphone Olympic arch top guitar and began playing the John Hartford tune “Turn Your Radio On.” It has become somewhat of tradition for bands to honor Hartford around St. Louis, and it always gets the crowds attention right from the start! After the song Rawlings greeted the crowd and informed us that this was the first time he had played that one, but it seemed appropriate.
The always incredible and Grammy nominated guitarist Gillian Welch assisted throughout the night adding beautiful harmonies and even taking lead vocal duties on a few songs. Welch was also the comic relief on the mic, telling the crowd that “we broke out our best denim for tonight… it works, you know, with all the wood” referring to the fact that each band member was wearing at least one piece of denim clothing. David chimed in that the room was “very 70’s looking.” As Rawlings prepared his banjo and third guitarist Willie Watson switched to fiddle, Welch introduced the next song by telling us “if theres one thing people say about St. Louis, its that y’all love the banjo.” They went into a rousing rendition of “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” popularized by Ryan Adams, but co-penned by Rawlings. This one really woke the crowd up.
Willie Watson switched to the banjo for the next tune… a trend that would continue through the night as he shared time between the guitar, banjo, and fiddle. Watson led us in the bluegrass traditional “Dry Bones” while attacking the banjo claw hammer style. Rawlings introduced him to the crowd and asked him to “lead us in another one… how about a dirty song.” Watson sang the first of three songs from his newly released solo album, Folk Singer Vol. 1, a fun track called “Keep It Clean.”
The highlight of the first set was a mashup of Bob Dylan’s “Dear Landlord” and the Grateful Dead’s “Candyman.” Rawlings flawlessly executed the transition about four minutes into “Dear Landlord” without skipping a beat… the transition really allowed John Paul Jones to shine for the first time all night on the mandolin. After playing pretty much all of “Candyman” they finsihed BACK into “Dear Landlord.” The crowd exploded in applause as Welch said “Only his brain would be able to come up with that mashup”
After a 30 minute set break Rawlings told us that he wanted to wait until the beer line was gone to start again, but realized that would never happen. Someone in the crowd took the opportunity to throw out a perfectly timed “If theres two things St. Louis is known for….” as the entire crowd and the band started laughing. The first song of the second set was the beautifully written “Ruby”, a song that appeared on the Dave Rawlings Machine album, A Friend of a Friend. Willie Watson then sang “Stewball”, another track from his new solo album, this one featured lyrics about a race car. Gillian Welch led a gorgeous rendition of her song “Wayside/Back in Time.” Rawlings then told us of his misfortune during the prior show where his banjo strap broke and he quickly replaced it with a shoe string he found in his case… problem was, he didn’t think to change it prior to this show so he informed us that “if the banjo hits the floor, its not part of the show” to which the capacity crowd laughed again.
After a Paul Kowert led number, the band left only Gillian and David on stage. Together they played “Sweet Tooth” before Willie came back out to join on banjo for the traditional “I Hear Them All” into “This Land Is Your Land.” The rest of the band came back out to join them for a song that Rawlings had co-wrote with Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame, “Method Acting.” Rawlings actually recorded that song for the A Friend of A Friend album where he mixed it with Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer”, well that’s the incredible version we received at The Sheldon. The second set ended with another Bob Dylan song, “Queen Jane Approximately.” Another John Paul Jones intro led to yet another smattering of applause and a standing ovation as the band walked off the stage.
About a minute later they re-claimed their spots on the tiny stage for their take on the Led Zeppelin classic, “Going to California.” Rawlings introduced the entire band one last time prior to another traditional “I’ll Fly Away” with him and Welch sharing vocal duties. The encore closed with “The Weight”, originally by The Band, where verses were handled by Welch, Watson, and Kowert with the rest of the band joining in on the chorus. Again the crowd rose to their feet as the band joined hands and bowed before walking off the stage. A few people started to head for the exits while others remained in the spots, but on their feet going crazy. After about 2 minutes the band came out AGAIN for a second encore! Rawlings again thanked the crowd, and after a quick huddle the next song, “Midnight Special” was led by Willie Watson. The night ended with the five of them gathered around a single mic (above) for an acappella version of “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” before one last bow and exit as the house lights came on.
NOTE: This is only a brief clip of “Going to California” played at The Sheldon. Had to sneak this clip of JPJ playing mandolin before i was asked to stop by security. Please note that my recording in no way bothered other concert-goers as the screen was shielded.