Near the beginning of the incredible Dave Rawlings Machine concert at the Lobero Theatre on Sunday night, Rawlings noted, "We have a lot of deeply overqualified people in my band." Spot on, that — his band consists of noted singer/songwriter (and his musical and romantic partner) Gillian Welch on vocals and guitar, former Old Crow Medicine Show band member Willie Watson on vocals, guitar, banjo and fiddle, Punch Brothers band member Paul Kowert on stand-up bass and — get this — former Led Zeppelin bassist/multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones on mandolin. Plus, let's not forget, Rawlings is himself quite an amazing singer and songwriter and an inspired guitarist/banjo player.
The band deftly tapped into the sounds and, often, the music of yesteryear. From the old-time department came covers of Woody Guthrie ("Going Down the Road Feeling Bad"), Jesse Fuller ("Monkey and the Engineer") and Charley Jordan ("Keep It Clean"). There was also a bit of fiery Bill Monroe bluegrass ("He Will Set Your Fields on Fire" with some low singing from Kowert), and the traditional gem "Stewball," sung in vintage style by Watson with a fun call-and-response with the audience.
The band also covered a couple of off-the-beaten-path Bob Dylan tunes, with better singing it must be noted — "As I Went Out One Morning," "Queen Jane Approximately" and "Billy 4," the latter from the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack.
There were also a couple of interesting medleys: Bright Eyes' "Method Acting," which led into Neil Young's scorcher "Cortez the Killer," and Old Crow Medicine Show's "I Hear Them All" with Guthrie's unofficial national anthem "This Land Is Your Land." The latter was a show highlight with Welch, Rawlings, Watson and Kowert each taking a verse, including the more populist ones that you don't hear so often.
There was also a healthy helping of original songs from the lone Dave Rawlings Machine album from five years back and from Welch's catalog, featuring folk sounds that fit seamlessly with the rest of the program. A special treat was "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)," which Rawlings told of writing with recent Santa Barbara visitor Ryan Adams at a barely-remembered party in Nashville.
It's hard to pick a highlight from the two main sets, but if I must, I would go with the Dave Rawlings Machine song "It's Too Easy," which had Watson on fiddle, Rawlings on banjo and Jones starting on mandolin then rushing to Watson's side with a fiddle in hand while the song sped up to a breakneck pace. That "deeply overqualified" band can really turn it up!
The encore kicked off a magical cover of Led Zeppelin's "Going to California," which reminded us of Jones' role as Zep's secret weapon, having played the mandolin on the original recording. The encore also included a breathtaking cover of the classic "The Weight" by The Band, and the cheers brought the band back for an unamplified performance of "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby," arguably the most memorable of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, a recording that includes Welch as one of the singing sirens.
Throughout the show, the harmonies were absolutely heavenly, and the playing was out of this world. In particular, Rawlings and Jones brought masterful touches to their respective instruments, and fed off each other as they explored wondrous heights.
And it must be said that the Lobero Theatre was a perfect venue for this show, given its glorious sound and a history that stretches over the timespan of the music that was heard and enjoyed.
Monkey and the Engineer (Jesse Fuller song)
Going Down the Road Feeling Bad (Woody Guthrie song)
Dry Bones (Bascom Lamar Lunsford song)
Wayside / Back in Time (Gillian Welch song)
As I Went Out One Morning (Bob Dylan song)
To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High) (Ryan Adams/Dave Rawlings song)
Keep It Clean (Charley Jordan song)
Bells of Harlem It's Too Easy
— Intermission —
Billy 4 (Bob Dylan song)
He Will Set Your Fields on Fire (Bill Monroe song)
Sweet Tooth I Hear Them All / This Land is Your Land (Old Crow Medicine show song / Woody Guthrie song)
Method Acting / Cortez the Killer (Bright Eyes song / Neil Young song)
Queen Jane Approximately (Bob Dylan song)
Going to California (Led Zeppelin song)
Look at Miss Ohio (Gillian Welch song)
The Weight (The Band song)
Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby (traditional)
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.