Folk music simultaneously looks back nostalgically at a bygone era while looking hopefully ahead at a better tomorrow. It's a tricky tightrope to walk without becoming antiseptic and corny or preachy and naive.
With a repertoire that included an old-time telegraph man, a pretty, young mountain girl and several appearances by Old Scratch, David Rawlings showed Friday night at the Folly Theatre why he is one of today’s most sought-after folk artists.
The two-hour concert (with half-hour intermission) was Rawlings’ second performance at the Folly in a year. Overall, it was Rawlings fourth show in the area in as many years. Or as Gillian Welch, Rawlings’ partner and musical foil put it, “the rest of the country is not seeing us that often.”
The first set was heavy on material from Rawlings’ just-released third album. Across the course of the night, he’d perform all but one of it’s tracks. While the songs aren’t as road-tested, they had a knack for seeming instantly familiar. By the end of several numbers, the crowd was quietly singing along, even if they were hearing them for the first time.
Old favorites dotted the opening half as well. Welch took lead vocals on “Wayside/Back in Time” from her 2003 release “Soul Journey.” That was followed by Rawlings’ early collaboration with Ryan Adams, “To Be Young (Is to be Sad, Is to be High),” introduced as a “song older than some of the instruments onstage.”
For their encore performance at the Folly, Rawlings and Welch brought the same musicians who backed them last year. Guitarist Willie Weeks, formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show, bass player Paul Kowert from the Punch Brothers and violinist extraordinaire Brittany Haas completed the ensemble.
In a group of world-class musicians, Haas stood out. Her fiddle provided a melodic counterpoint to Welch and Rawlings’ vocal harmonies and frequently drew mid-song applause, especially on “Short-Haired Woman Blues.”
The mournful “Lindsey Button” sounded like a lost Appalachian hymn until Haas started plucking her violin along to Rawlings’ solo, turning the performance into a minuet. Later, the ensemble returned to the classical motif on “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)” as two fiddles and Kowert’s bowed bass accompanied Rawlings’ guitar.
Other high points included a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” which featured a virtuosic Rawlings guitar solo that quoted “Midnight Rider.” Paradoxically, the solemn “Guitar Man” implored the crowd to “hear the band” and “clap your hands,” but Rawlings’ longing vocals and the band’s arrangement made it sound like they were looking at a faded photo and wistfully remembering something from long ago.
A medley of Rawlings’ original “I Hear Them All” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” has become the emotional centerpiece of the set. The pairing sadly never loses relevance, but seemed especially poignant in light of current turbulence and earned a standing ovation.
During “It’s Too Easy,” Welch swished her dress back and forth, dancing in place as Haas’ and Watson’s fiddles dueled. It seemed like the end of the night, but after another group bow, Rawlings reached back toward his guitar. After playing something Rawlings confessed they had been rehearsing at sound check, the night ended with all five musicians huddled around a single microphone. As the quintet sang “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” a capella, the audience provided percussive accompaniment with claps and stomps.