TVD Live: David Rawlings at the Lincoln Theatre, 12/6

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | David Rawlings and his band takes to the empty stage as they would if they were around during the end of the Industrial Revolution 150 years ago or more. At the Lincoln Theatre in Washington last Wednesday, with two guys in big hats and two women in long cotton dresses, they rather resembled a rural string band that could have assembled on anybody’s porch a century ago or more, picking out music, interlocking rhythms, and singing harmonies about many of the same kinds of concerns. Americana indeed.

Rawlings may first have come to notice as the backing guitarist for his partner Gillian Welch, who, happily, is also part of the his band. But here, the smiling, good-natured Rawlings is front and center. His voice is OK at best; his songs often simple constructions. What jumps out, and what brings the audience, are his guitar solos.

He had a few guitars on hand, but mostly used one mighty mahogany 1935 Epiphone Olympic, with a sprucewood arched top. It seemed a tiny instrument – less than 14 inches wide — for all he brought out of it. With a tone midway between the high, bright sound of a mandolin and the deeper tones of a more conventional guitar, he flatpicks his way into a superhighway of inventive melody with one turn inspiring the next, faster and faster, but never losing its soul or appeal.

Applause greeted nearly every solo and the rest of the band rose to join his musicality. Guitarist Willie Watson, formerly of the Old Crow Medicine Show actually has a better voice (but is self-effacingly ineffective on bongos the one time he tried). Fiddler Brittany Haas of Boston bluegrass band Crooked Still who is often heard on Prairie Home Companion, often sounds, like Rawlings, as if she’s playing more than one instrument, the approach is so full and musical. Welch, of course, keeps the rhythm locked down on acoustic guitar and bolsters the harmonies throughout. And a couple of times, thankfully, was featured on some of her own songs, from “Wayside/Back in Time” to “Look at Miss Ohio.”

It was her own percussion, though, that was the first and last thing heard on stage, from the hand-to-leg slaps that set up “Money is the Meat in the Coconut” to open, to the claps and stomps undergirding the swell single-microphone gospel of “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” at the very end. She also did something Wednesday nobody in the quintet – which also includes bassist Paul Koweit of the Punch Brothers — ever did on stage, according to Rawlings: Break a string.

The audible sproing came early in the show and, reflective of how light they must be traveling, nobody came out to fix it. Is it possible they don’t travel with a roadie? After a song, Watson tried his hand at restringing it. At the end of the first set a guy finally came out to take a look — had they looked up an on-call local on Yelp?

Haas tried something new Wednesday as well — playing Rawling’s prized guitar on a song instead of fiddle, the first time she ever tried to do so on stage. Sounded OK. A couple of the covers stood out, though one of them, Ryan Adams’ “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” was actually co-written by Rawlings when he played on Adams’ album Heartbreaker.

A version of Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” though, was a string band doozie, with a standout Haas solo followed by a Rawlings workout that incorporated parts of “Midnight Rider.” The standards stood out, both footed in history and supercharged, from the Old Crow Medicine Show’s “I Hear Them All” that morphed into Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” to the Bill Monroe gospel “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire,” and the traditional “Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.”

They were the kind songs that both fueled their dynamic performance while maintaining the time-honored American history they were extending.

SETLIST
Money is the Meat in the Coconut
Midnight Train
Come on Over My House
Back in Time
To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)
Airplane
Keep It Clean
Guitar Man
The Last Pharaoh
It’s Too Easy

Ruby
Good God a Woman
Short Haired Woman Blues
He Will Set Your Fields on Fire
I Hear Them All / This Land is Your Land
Samson and Delilah
Yup
Queen Jane Approximately

Look at Miss Ohio
The Weekend
Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad
Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby

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