For David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, obviously some difference of concept or approach informs their decision as to whether any given album or tour will be billed under her name or his. But for their fans, any delineations ultimately evaporate. The crowd comes for exactly the same reason — to hear the couple deliver some of the finest Americana music ever made.
They’ve gone back and forth with the names lately. The new Dave Rawlings Machine album “Nashville Obsolete” follows 2009’s “A Friend of a Friend,” with four prior Welch albums and one in between. But in 20 years of watching them perform, I’ve never once seen Welch onstage without Rawlings, or vice versa, even for a single song.
One thing that does differentiate Dave Rawlings Machine performances is that while Welch-billed shows almost always are just the duo with no backing, the Machine allows other players into the mix. Saturday night at the Paramount Theatre, they brought aboard guitarist/banjo player Willie Watson (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show), bassist Paul Kowert and fiddler Tatiana Silver Hargreaves.
Though Rawlings and Welch anchored the stage together front-and-center, Rawlings’ featured role meant more diversions down fascinatingly long and winding song paths. “Nashville Obsolete” features new tunes that run 11 and eight minutes – “The Trip” and “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home),” respectively – and both were featured in a first set that also included three songs from “A Friend of a Friend.″
A second-set high point was the melding of “I Hear Them All,” a song Rawlings and Old Crow leader Ketch Secor wrote together, onto Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land is Your Land.” Paired up, the two tunes came across like one united and timeless populist anthem.
Rawlings returned to that combo approach in the first encore, weaving Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst’s “Method Acting” into Neil Young’s epic “Cortez the Killer” for another 10-minutes-plus journey of acoustic epiphany. It recalled nothing so much as the epic suites favored by Austin’s Alejandro Escovedo, who ironically was weaving similar spells with the songs of Leonard Cohen across downtown at ACL Live as the Rawlings Machine performed.
In the end, what left the most lasting impression is just how good Rawlings is as a bandleader. While he couldn’t help but shine in his customary support role with revelatory solos when Watson and Welch took lead vocal turns, he beamed proudly when Watson and Kowert sang out with illuminating emotion on verses of The Band’s “The Weight.” And as he brought everyone together around a single microphone for the a cappella closer “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” (made famous by Welch, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss on the “O Brother” soundtrack), it was as if to say, hey, this isn’t about me. Welcome to the Machine.
SET LIST:The WeekendBodysnatchersPilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)Wayside/Back in Time – Welch lead vocalsTo Be YoungKeep It Clean – Watson lead vocalsBells of HarlemThe TripIt’s Too Easy
INTERMISSIONRubyThe Last PharaohHe Will Set Your Fields on FireSweet ToothI Hear Them All / This Land Is Your LandStewball – Watson lead vocalsShort Haired Woman BluesQueen Jane Approximately
ENCORE ONELook at Miss Ohio – Welch lead vocalsMethod Acting / Cortez the Killer
ENCORE TWOGoin’ Down the Road Feelin’ BadThe WeightDidn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby