One evening in October I was leaving band practice and heading to a local eatery to grab a late dinner when “Going to California” came on the radio. I’ve always been a fan of Led Zeppelin but my recent obsession with mandolin fueled by bluegrass made the song really resonate with me. I immediately ordered the track on iTunes (even though I had it on disc at home) so that I could listen to it over and over again. I was obsessed.
Attending a number of shows at the Georgia Theatre over the past few months, I kept seeing the bulletins for Dave Rawlings Machine. I looked up the group hoping it might be some new found bluegrass I needed to check out. I saw that Dave Rawlings was a “musical partner” to Gillian Welch, with whom I had little better than name recognition. I chalked it up as more on the folky-side than I was looking for and didn’t pay it a second thought.
Fast forward a month or so and I see a YouTube video of Dave Rawlings Machine playing “Going to California.” I’m interested. I open the video and think, “wow, that guy looks a lot like John Paul Jones.” It was John Paul Jones. I was sold. I immediately hopped on the Internet to buy tickets for the Athens show when I saw that they were playing a few miles from my house that very night. Too late to go, I went ahead and ordered tickets and promised myself never to judge a concert’s worthiness based on Wikipedia again.
The band for this special run included Rawlings, Welch, and Jones paired with Old Crow Medicine Show vet Willie Watson and Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert. Both are personal favorites. So, not only did I completely miss what was a pretty big tour announcement but also embarrassingly didn’t appreciate the bluegrass esteem held for Mr. Rawlings and Ms. Welch. Just over a month in and I’ve already been exposed as a complete bluegrass poser!
Sorry for the extensive lead-in for a show review but it seemed necessary given the complete shock I experienced at the Georgia Theatre on a too cold Tuesday night in November 2013. Not only was this a handful of superstars playing in my favorite place to see live music, this was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
The group opened to an eager crowd with “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” before a bit of a false start on a personal favorite, “Hot Corn Cold Corn.” Rawlings stopped early in the song, apologizing that “I think my banjo just broke.” Welch entertained the crowd while he addressed his instrument issues.
“Things are going to pick up. Excuse us, we’ve only been a band for 6 days.”
Willie Watson’s first vocal effort was “Dry Bones,” introduced as he explained “my banjo is broken, too, but I’m going to play it anyway.”
A standout from the evening, the band made their first ever attempt at the Grateful Dead’s “Deal,” much to the delight of the Georgia Theatre crowd. Rawlings voice compliments the song nicely. A gem from the Dave Rawlings Machine album A Friend of A Friend, the song Rawlings penned with Ryan Adams, “To Be Young” really got the audience going and the sweet smells common to the Georgia Theatre really started filling the room. A trio of songs from the album closed the set, with “Monkey and the Engineer” and It’s Too Easy” shining.
The second set kicked off with likely the most popular song off A Friend of A Friend, “Ruby.” The rest of the band left the stage for a moment as Rawlings and Welch serenaded the crowd with “Sweet Tooth,” a fan favorite. Willie Watson joined the couple for a song best known to the Old Crow Medicine Show fans, “I Hear Them All,” transitioning into “This Land Is Your Land” and back. Willie kept the spotlight as the rest of the band rejoined, leading the crowd with instructions to moan “uh huh” between lines on the blues staple “Stewball.” On a stage full of top-notch entertainers, there is something about Mr. Watson that can truly capture a crowd.
Of no surprise, the real jam of the night came during “Method Acting/Cortez the Killer,” the ten minute titan from A Friend of A Friend that features the Neil Young hit in the second half. After Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” stage introductions followed and let me tell you, I’ve seen some powerful shows by some powerful bands at the Georgia Theatre but the crowd response as Rawlings graciously introduced each member shook the building like nothing I’ve seen in that special place.
The encore brought with it childish, Christmas-like anticipation. The band didn’t make us wait before the mandolin licks of “Going to California” echoed the great hall. I’ve had some magical musical moments but this will stand out as an all-timer. To see Mr. Jones play the part that he etched in history in the building that most defines my formative years was a moment I’ll never forget.
“Look at Miss Ohio” and “Midnight Special” served as the stuffing for this Thanksgiving feast of an encore, before the band turned their attention to The Band’s “The Weight,” another performance I’d dreamed of since reading the early show reviews. An acappella “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” closed the show with an unexpected finesse. There wasn’t a flat lip in the building on the march to Lumpkin Street.
Everything about Dave Rawlings Machine and their Georgia Theatre performance – from the setlist to the crowd to the venue – was fitting of a supergroup. I’m not sure if it was the surprise factor of the way everything came together or what, but all in all this goes down as one my favorite shows of all time. Despite Ms. Welch’s apologies to the contrary early in the show, the performance was perfect and Dave Rawlings Machine – at least in this iteration but probably in any – is a must see.
Like any of the songs played at the show as previewed on the Spotify player below? Support this site and buy the tracks through the associate program at Amazon using the list Dave Rawlings Machine – Georgia Theatre 11/26/2013.