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New Nashville: The Dave Rawlings Machine at the Recher Theatre, May 31

June 1, 2010

Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch—he of the scruffy beard and white cowboy hat, she of the dyed-red hair and faded green dress—began the song “I Hear Them All” alone at the Recher Theatre, as if they were back home in Nashville, working up a harmony vocal. More often than not, Welch takes the lead part, for her eerie soprano is more special than Rawlings’ rugged tenor, but occasionally he takes the lead, as he did on this song. In fact, this evening’s show was billed as the Dave Rawlings Machine, the long-delayed vehicle for his lead vocals.

“I Hear Them All” is a gentle, finger-picking folk song, but it slowly developed momentum as Rawlings cataloged, in the style of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” all the things he’s hearing: “the crying of the hungry in the deserts,” “the roar of burning paper,” “the rattle of the shackle” and “Noah’s waterfall.” The song wants to shift into a higher gear, but on Rawlings’ recent album, A Friend of a Friend, it stubbornly remained a solo folk song. At the Recher, however, he was joined first by Welch, then by Morgan Jahnig on upright bass, then by the twin fiddles of Ketch Secor and Gabe Witcher, and finally by guitarist Willie Watson. By then, the tune was rocking and had earned its segue into Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

The leisurely country love song “Ruby” was given glowing four-part harmonies and twin-fiddle backing. Rawlings and Welch have been singing with one another since they met as college students in Boston and their voices fit together as if they were spooning. That was especially obvious when they chimed their way through “Bells of Harlem,” the song they co-wrote as the album-closer for A Friend of a Friend, and their duet on the unrecorded number, “Throw Me a Rope.”

Welch sang lead on two songs, “Look at Miss Ohio” and “No One Knows My Name,” from her 2003 album, Soul Journey.

Secor, who co-wrote “I Hear Them All,” Watson, and Jahnig are all members of the Old Crow Medicine Show, the old-time string band that recorded two albums with Rawlings as producer. Witcher, a member of the Punch Brothers, is not a regular member of the Machine, but he had joined the tour temporarily to relieve Watson, who was about to return to Nashville for the birth of his first child. The musicians had just driven into Towson from an apparently rousing weekend at Del McCoury’s Delfest in Cumberland and were revved to go.

The sextet moved easily from one song to another, demonstrating how their drummer-less, loosey-goosey, string-band arrangements could accommodate folk-rock and modern-rock. They segued from Bright Eyes’ “Method Acting” into Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” from Dylan’s “Dear Landlord” into the Grateful Dead’s “Candyman” and back again. When Rawlings and Welch performed “Sweet Tooth,” their rewrite of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candyman,” they slipped bits of the source into their own song. They began it as an unaccompanied duo concentrating on the ragtime finger-picking but by the end Secor and Watson were blowing wildly on harmonica as Rawlings and Welch began pogo-dancing.