Thursday, February 25, 2010 ... 1:40 PM

On the Trail of the Dave Rawlings Machine, part 1

Earlier this month, my friends Ginger Kowal and Carolyn Fryberger spent a few days following the The Dave Rawlings Machine along the end of their tour in the great Northwest. Ginger and Carolyn are the founders of the Dave Rawlings Machine Fan Club -- and, I think I can say, friends of Dave and Gil as well. I asked them to write about their trek for the Tent Revue, and they both sent me wonderful pieces -- not only descriptive but thoughtful and interesting as well. I think you'll enjoy them. I'm going to draw this out a little, and post Carolyn's writing tomorrow. Here is what Ginger wrote for us.

(Thanks to Lindsey Best for letting me use her photographs of the Dave Rawlings Machine in these entries!)

I think you could say that David Rawlings had something to let out of his system. All of those years of standing quietly beside Gillian Welch, melding his small voice delicately and perfectly with hers, interjecting little brilliant scales on his guitar carefully between the verses of her meticulously arranged songs, smiling shyly to the cheering crowd with a small nod after each solo, he must have built up some steam. I don’t think that Dave was having a bad time as the second hand in the two-man Gillian Welch band, but when you give this man a banjo and a small group of slightly rambunctious young men to play onstage with, something kind of wild emerges.

I remember when Carolyn and I first started following the Machine around the Southeast back in December of 2006, when it was still a one-off sort of experiment executed in small dingy venues at midnight, after the regularly scheduled show. Dave used to tip up onto his toes during his guitar breaks, like he was trying to reach something with his solo that was just slightly beyond him. While he was singing he would reach up for notes that both he and the audience knew he had small chance of hitting. During the shows these days he will sometimes ramp the band up to a tempo that they can just barely keep up with. Sometimes he will flail at his poor little guitar like he wants to beat something monstrous out of it. It’s not that Dave is limited. (Ha!) It’s just that he seems to want to play always harder, faster, higher, louder, more, more, more. No wonder he sometimes almost collapses backwards from the microphone after a solo. It must be exhausting to be straining towards something incredible all the time. (It is intoxicating to watch.)

If Gillian once called her approach “selective deconstructionism,” then I think the Dave Rawlings Machine is guided by a general explosiveness. Gillian said that she plays rock music, pared down to its most bare and raw elements. Dave seems to be able to take music from nearly any source or style and ramp it up to something spectacular. Witness “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”; “Monkey and the Engineer”; “Stop Dragging My Heart Around”; they are performing “Hot Corn Cold Corn” at their shows! All turn into alternately foot-stomping or heart-stopping masterpieces onstage. Having a full band up there, Ketch on fiddle, Morgan on bass, Willie on guitar and harmony vocals, expands Dave’s already formidable energy and intensity into a thundering old-time locomotive. Dave still plays like a one-man band, using his little Epiphone to fill in all possible harmonies and textures, seemingly attempting to strike as many strings as possible and create as much sound from that little guitar as possible, but having the boys around him just makes it all bigger.

Dave’s voice still expands unconsciously into Gillian’s when she joins him in harmony. Perhaps he is still just a little uncomfortable with his voice out there all by itself. Besides, imagine! if you sounded so completely perfect singing with someone else, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable singing together than on your own? The rapport with Gillian is still there, a solid base to this wild new band, a strong and beautiful joining of voices and talents that seems to keep Dave grounded. To hear them sing “Throw Me A Rope” together at the very center of the show, a deep well of darkness and nearly unspeakable beauty in the heart of that display of energy and excitement coming from an unstoppable Machine... well. It’s unspeakably beautiful. It always has been. I’m glad it’s still there.

Some artists have a style or a sound to sell, and that’s what they give you at their shows. You get to see a product, a finished thing. At Dave’s shows you witness the creation of the product. He’s selling tickets to watch the product taking form. It’s different every night; I guess this is one reason you can go to several shows one after the other and be completely entertained every time. He doesn’t ever seem to be content with playing anything the same way he has before. Each time around a song will have a different arrangement, a different sequence, a different resting spot here, a different crescendo and climax there. He’s able to bring the band along with him in his improvisation – you can see him direct them with a nod or a shout to start something new on the spot. They seem to enjoy it. There is an air of spontaneity and surprise, and yet security that I suppose only comes along with the trust of having played a nearly complete tour together.

...The effect on the audience? In Portland the band was called onstage for four lengthy encores. The people just wouldn’t stop cheering. As for my more personal perspective, I can tell you that Dave Rawlings Machine kind of makes me feel like dropping out of school and dedicating myself to following the Machine full-time. If anyone out there has some good ideas about why a graduate degree is more important than the joy of watching Dave Rawlings perform onstage night after night, I would love to hear them. Get them to me quick before I become a professional Machinehead.

Ginger Kowal



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Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas
(Novello Festival Press, April 2008)
includes my essay, "Link Wray"


Flop Eared Mule
The Celestial Monochord
Dig and Be Dug in Return
Modern Acoustic Magazine / Blog
The Old, Weird America
Honey, Where You Been So Long?

The Greensboro Review
Mixed Animal
Night Train
Fried Chicken and Coffee
Mungo (This was the blog of my friend, the late Cami Park. Miss you, Cami.)
Staccato Fiction
PANK Magazine

Cat and Girl
Film Freak Central