It is a great achievement when a musician comes along and makes one feel that there is something in American tradition worth keeping alive and breathing, namely its music.
(Photo: Michael Bialas)
In recent times, it has become increasingly difficult to feel much pride, if any, in American culture. It is a great achievement, then, when a musician like David Rawlings comes along and makes one feel that there is something in American tradition worth keeping alive and breathing, namely its music.
On Friday, August 25th, at the stunning Thalia Hall in Chicago, the virtuoso guitarist and his band offered a crowd of adoring fans over two-and-a-half hours of originals and covers, a whirlwind tour through folk, bluegrass, country, and other eclectic strands of Americana. Rawlings, who in addition to guitar took a few memorable turns on banjo, was joined by fiddle player Brittany Haas, multi-instrumentalist Willie Watson, Paul Kowert of Punch Brothers on stand-up bass and Gillian Welch on guitar, back-up vocals, and occasional hand percussion, all of whom contributed dense vocal textures throughout the night.
Since this was a David Rawlings show, the material focused appropriately enough on his most recent solo effort, Poor David’s Almanack. They played virtually the whole album, including jaunty songs like “Come on Over My House” and “Good God a Woman,” the tender “Lindsey Button,” and the charming story-song “Yup,” featuring none other than Satan himself as a main character. They also played “Guitar Man,” a tune reminiscent of The Band that showcases how selfless Rawlings is, even when playing a song that seems to be essentially about himself (or at least a lineage of figures to which he belongs).
Indeed, this is what makes Rawlings so special, that even when he is playing one of his many spectacular solos, it doesn’t feel like it’s ever about him—rather, it feels like he is channeling a whole cast of past performers to whom he is paying tribute and that they are the ones who are truly important.
Fans were also treated to two Gillian Welch classics from her 2003 album Soul Journey, namely “Look at Miss Ohio” and “Wayside,” which appeared early in the set. There were also tracks written by or with others such as Ryan Adams (“To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)”), Bright Eyes (“Method Acting,” which they melded with Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer”), Old Crow Medicine Show (“I Hear Them All,” which segued into a moving and surprising “This Land is Your Land”) and an inspired cover of Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately.” There were also numbers from earlier Rawlings solo albums, including “It’s Too Easy,” “The Weekend” and “Short Haired Woman Blues.” Finally, the setlist also showcased standards like “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire,” “Samson and Delilah” and an enchanting, a cappella version of “Go to Sleep You Little Babe.”
It is rare to witness a show featuring instruments this old. On some songs, Rawlings played his 1935 Epiphone. Willie Watson, we were told, was playing a nearly 200-year-old fiddle. This, in addition to the elegance of the band, in terms of appearance and performance alike, gave the concert a spectral quality, even at its most boisterous.The concert felt like a kind of séance, with the band’s vocal harmonies and the hypnotic, mellifluous lines teased out by Rawlings’ guitar conjuring forgotten spirits, letting them out to shake a leg before setting them to rest again.
Together, the band creates a haunting sound that transports, not “back” to the past but “forward” to the past—to the future made up of the past we’ll want to keep and (hopefully) leaving the rest behind.