David Rawlings calls his band the Dave Rawlings Machine, and though there is plenty about the ensemble that is sturdy, reliable and efficient, it produces a sound that is more organic and improvised than mechanical and engineered.
Saturday night, Rawlings performed at the Folly Theater with the Machine, which comprises his longtime partner Gillian Welch; Paul Kowert of the Punch Brothers, who slapped, bowed and plucked his standup bass all night; Willie Watson, formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show, on guitar, banjo and fiddle; and Brittany Haas, who embroidered many tunes with spirited fiddle leads.
For two hours (plus a 30-minute intermission) they delivered long, warm gusts of old-time acoustic music, songs that evoke a time when trains were still a primary mode of transportation, and the telegraph was transforming a burgeoning nation.
Rawlings is the leader of the band, but he shares the spotlight generously with his mates. Welch, who is in the midst of a stellar career of her own, sang a few of her own better-known songs, including “Wayside/Back in Time,” from her dandy “Soul Journey” album.
“Wayside” followed two from the Rawling Machine’s “Nashville Obsolete” album, its second, which was released in September: “The Weekend,” in which the singer pines for the love he lost (“I got to find my runaway horse”) and “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home),” in which the singer contemplates a life without a place to call home (“The poet and the tumbleweed discuss what rootlessness is worth.”)
Many of the 22 songs on the set list featured an instrumental jam, most often from Rawlings on guitar. He favors speedy, percussive leads with passels of notes instead of more refined, understated and melodic forays — energy over elegance. Watson displayed his skills on each of his instruments and often joined Welch and Rawlings on vocal harmonies.
The first set included a rustic Machine version of “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High),” which Rawlings co-wrote with Ryan Adams for Adams’ first solo album, “Heartbreaker.”
It also included two covers: the traditional song “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” which opened the show, and “Keep It Clean,” a Charley Jordan tune. Both were given the same treatment: lots of picking and strumming and bowing and plenty of clean harmonies.
They closed the first set with “The Trip,” an epic poem with abstract lyrics, most of which Rawlings delivered in near spoken word, then “It’s Too Easy,” which bounced to a sprightly bluegrass vibe.
The second set included a few more covers: a high-speed rendition of Bill Monroe’s “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire,” which featured some vocals from Kowert; the traditional “Stewball,” for which Watson orchestrated a singalong with the crowd; and a worthwhile remake of Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” in which Rawlings evoked the sound of late-’60s Dylan.
Rawlings and Welch performed as a duo the frisky “Sweet Tooth,” a country-folk tune from the Machine’s first album, “A Friend of a Friend,” then Kowert joined them on the foreboding “Bodysnatchers,” a gothic tune in which evil lurks around every corner.
They closed the show in grand style. Welch sang another of her own, the lovely “Look at Miss Ohio,” then came more covers. Their slow-burn version of the Grateful Dead’s “China Doll” got one of the loudest ovations of the evening, and their cover of the Band’s over-covered “The Weight” prompted the loudest singalong of the night. Rawlings, Welch, Watson and Kowert shared lead vocals on that one.
For the finale, all five huddled around one microphone and, without instrumentation, performed “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” a Grammy-winning song from the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack that featured vocals from Welch (with Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss).
The crowd listened to raptly, almost reverently, to the confluence of five voices performing the haunting lullaby, a performance more transcendent than mechanical.
Going Down the Road Feeling Bad; The Weekend; Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home); Wayside/Back in Time; To Be Young; Bells of Harlem; Keep It Clean; The Trip; It’s Too Easy. Intermission. Ruby; Last Pharaoh; He Will Set Your Fields on Fire; Sweet Tooth; Bodysnatchers; Stewball; Short-Haired Woman Blues; Queen Jane Approximately; Look at Miss Ohio; China Doll; The Weight; Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby.