The five-piece iteration of the Dave Rawlings Machine jumped to The Grey Eagle’s stage shortly after 8 p.m. on Friday night and opened with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” It’s a song often reserved for the end of the night. But in this case, it set forth the evening’s familial tone as front man Rawlings lead the newest lineup of his ever-evolving Machine through a two-and-a-half-hour old-time music marathon.
This Machine included Gillian Welch, who continued to build a case for her canonization from center stage, just to the right of Rawlings. She and Willie Watson, formerly of Old Crowe Medicine Show, alternated between banjo and guitar while Paul Kowert, of the Punch Brothers, held down the upright bass. John Paul Jones, a most-infamous three-syllable-name, played mandolin.
Asheville was stop number three on a seven-day, seven-show Southeastern tour-de-force that began in Knoxville. You may not have seen any flyers or handbills for this show. That’s because there weren’t any. There really wasn’t much of a point. The band’s sudden and seemingly-sporadic choice of tour dates combined with low building capacities and the band’s penchant for intimate and somewhat hushed shows meant news circulated quickly through word of mouth. All of this added up to lead the Machine back to the cozy Grey Eagle and away from the partied-out largess of The Orange Peel, where they last played in ‘09.
The evening went through hushed verses, near-whispers and low-sung harmonies, accompanied by Rawlings’ melodic rambling and into frenzied moments often unleashed by choral upswings and Watson’s piercing calls. Time and again, the group brought the room to completely-silent and reverent stand-stills. Even at these quietist moments, the band and audience were brimming with raw energy.
It was old time and country and blues all at once. Solemn and playful, even borderline religious at times. That’s to say, the show was a modernized gospel, steeped in the past and underlined by some greater, cross-generational and omnipresent American soul.
The band drove the audience from bouts of raucous yipping to cheers and applause as they cycled through a dozen or more originals and old-time standards, several ‘60s and ‘70s classics and a handful of Welch’s pieces. They even touched on Dylan and the Band with songs like “Queen Jane Approximately” and “The Weight.” And a Led Zeppelin song, of course. This medley spanned a century’s time and hit on at least a half-dozen artists, including a nod to a local musician: Early in the night, they performed “Dry Bones,” an early-century mountain folk song by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a Mars Hill-born folklorist and lawyer. The chorus rang from all five members in a call-and-response style, backed by clawhammer banjo. “I saw the light, I saw the light from heaven, shining all around, I saw the light come shining, I saw the light come down.”
Welch moved into a rendition of Dylan’s “Dear Landlord,” begging the audience not to put a price on her soul. Pleading turned to an homage to youth with “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High),” which Rawlings co-wrote with Ryan Adams.
After Welch’s “Wayside Back in Time” wooed the crowd, Watson stepped up with a version of Charley Jordan’s 1930 country-blues song “Keep It Clean.” Watson, in suspenders and a wide-brimmed felt hat belted each line, effortlessly filling each and every crevice and floorboard gap with sound. “I went to the river, couldn’t get across. Jumped on your papa cause I thought he was a hoss,” he howled, at a slow and steady pace. “Ride him over, gave him a Coca-Cola, lemon soda. Saucer of ice cream.” Watson’s voice fell down for “takes soap and water” before booming into “for to keep it clean.”
A second-act version of “I Hear Them All” fell into instrumental obscurity, with Rawlings and Jones chasing each other on the mandolin and guitar, eventually leading the song into “This Land is Your Land.” Rawlings and the band made a point of one verse in particular. They toned down voices and instruments with “As I went walking I saw a sign there. And on the sign it said Private Property,” before rising into “But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, This land was made for you and me.”
In “Method Acting” Rawlings again fluctuated between light, melodic picking and commanding stringed assaults that emerged into Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.”
The first of two encores began with all five musicians hunched over their instruments, navigating the introduction. Rawlings and Jones let familiar notes slip off one by one, as Welch, Watson and Kowert eased into a steady rhythm. Jones finally leaned into a suddenly-surreal mandolin lead that proved familiar to the crowd: Zeppelin’s “Going to California.” Welch’s angelic tale of small-town beauty, “Look at Miss Ohio,” followed, along with a version of “The Midnight Special,” as preached by the good reverend Watson. The first encore rounded off with “Queen Jane Approximately,” Dylan’s pleading ballad of an ill-fated woman flirting with an imminent fall from grace. Rawlings’ take evoked heartfelt forewarning and momentary desperation unheard in Dylan’s rather cold-hearted plea.
The Machine wound the crowd down with a sing-along version of “The Weight.” And to polish up the end and truly lull the crowd, they gathered around a single mic and began with a deep hum, closing with “Didn’t Leave Nobody, But the Baby.”
And more on the show via Storify: