Winter’s initial cold spell in early February gave North Carolina residents a chilly yet welcome reminder that seasons still change. A warmer sense of new beginnings was felt in Carrboro music halls. On Monday, Vashti Bunyan had been the artist restored, her 40-year-delayed NC debut an intimate delight. Six days later, two familiar faces adjusted title and roles, then successfully renewed their own artistic vows.
Make no mistake, the Dave Rawlings Machine is accurately named. Gillian Welch’s job is at least as supportive here as David’s is in that other duo. He calls the set list — a rich tapestry of covers for the most part — sings lead except on a couple of features for his worthy partner, and conducts a master class on acoustic guitar. Rawlings’ solos are aural puzzles being solved; initially simple phrases are twisted into beautifully unified blocks of sound.
At one point, Welch took a fine Maybelle Carter-style guitar turn on “Sunny Side Of Life”. On the next song, Robyn Hitchcock’s “Luminous Rose”, Rawlings wrestled out one of his most hypnotic, angular solos of the night. “He gives me a solo, then he follows it with that,” Gillian sighed. Indeed, Rawlings was on fire all night — but always in service to the pair’s singular chemistry, and to the song.
And what a varied batch of songs. Traditional favorites such as “John Hardy”, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “Deep Ellum Blues” trembled and tossed with the life they never lose, except in lesser hands. Two relatively new originals, “Throw Me A Rope” and “Knuckleball Catcher”, found Welch hinting at new melodic territory, auguring well for their next album. David’s writing collaborations with Old Crow Medicine Show (“I Hear Them All”) and Ryan Adams (“To Be Young…”) got the Machine treatment, as did Gillian’s “Elvis Presley Blues” — sung by David in a style somewhat closer in tempo to Mississippi John Hurt’s original take on that melody. (David deferred to Gillian’s version as “the right one.”)
Two left-field picks from the Neil Young songbook, “Tired Eyes” and “Time Fades Away”, found Rawlings’ vocal delivery as important to the songs’ Shakey authority as his guitar work. Dylan’s “I Pity The Poor Immigrant” and “Queen Jane Approximately” bookended the main sets, the later closing with a solo whirlpool that swept up a cheering crowd in its wake.
Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” was in some ways the evening’s capper, David and Gillian again honoring a deserving song by reaching past the sheen to its yearning heart.
In the end, this Machine provides a vital new perspective on roots music’s premier partnership. You hear the sound of a rich legacy, still evolving. It offers Gillian and David renewal through that most daunting of competition — with David and Gillian.