You could call the Dave Rawlings Machine a cover band. Or you could call it a supergroup. Or you could say it’s both: a collection of well-known musicians who spend most of their shows recasting the works of great songwriters.
Tuesday night at the Uptown Theater, the Machine spent two and a half hours serenading a crowd of about 700 with a mix of covers and originals, each cast in old-time country fashion: via fiddle, banjo, upright bass, blues harp, mandolin and a host of acoustic guitars.
Rawlings is the leader of the band, but he deferred generously to those around him: Gillian Welch, his long-time singing and songwriting partner; multi-instrumentalist Willie Watson, formerly of the Old Crow Medicine Show; bassist Paul Kowert of the Punch Brothers; and former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who played mandolin and, for one song, fiddle.
The set list was a dynamic arrangement of ballads, hymns and boot-stomping anthems. Some were instantly familiar and played true to form, like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “The Midnight Special” and “The Weight.” Others were lesser known: the cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Goin’ Down the Road,” which opened the show.
Rawlings, Welch and Watson shared lead-vocal duties and laid down lockstep harmonies all night. A few times, Kowert and Jones joined them. Watson’s arresting old-soul voice added deeper resonance, whether he sang lead, as in “Keep It Clean,” or added another layer of harmony.
There were plenty of instrumental sorties and duels, especially between Rawlings, whose frenzied rhythms and leads looked like borderline assaults on his guitar, and Jones, who played his mandolins with ease, often at high speed.
The vibe was free-wheeling and organic all night, whether they were singing a taproot gospel hymn like “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire,” something whimsical like “Sweet Tooth,” or nailing early Bob Dylan gems like “Billy” or “Queen Jane Approximately.”
The show had no lulls or dead spots. Even the fusion of “Method Acting,” a Conor Oberst song, with “Cortez the Killer,” a Neil Young song, was raw and invigorating, though it went on for more than 7 minutes.
Rawlings and Welch would feature some of their own songs. He led the band through a splendid version of “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High),” which he co-wrote with Ryan Adams. Following the intermission, he sang “Ruby,” from his “A Friend of a Friend” album and later fused his own “I Hear Them All” with Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
Welch sang two of her better songs: the country-blues ballad “Wayside Back in Time” from her “Soul Journey” album, and the lovely hymn “Look At Miss Ohio,” from the same album.
That one was part of a closing and encore that only left a very enthusiastic crowd in the mood for more. The wistful cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” starring Rawlings on lead vocals, started things off. The Band’s “The Weight” gets covered too much, but this version was particularly feverish and further stoked a crowd that had already uncorked its zeal.
They ended with a lullabye, “Didn’t Leave Nobody’ But the Baby,” performed old-time style: all five gathered around one microphone with no instrumental accompaniment. The harmonies were spine-tingling. It was idyllic and the perfect end to a showcase of songwriting and musicianship from a band of all-stars who seem to do it not for glory but for the love of making music.
Goin’ Down the Road; April 14, Part 1; Monkey and the Engineer; Keep It Clean; Wayside Back in Time; Will the Circle Be Unbroken; To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High); Bells of Harlem; It’s Too Easy. Intermission. Ruby; Billy; He Will Set Your Fields on Fire; Sweet Tooth; I Hear Them All/This Land Is Your Land; The Midnight Special; Method Acting/Cortez the Killer; Queen Jane Approximately; Going to California; Look At Miss Ohio; The Weight; Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby.