When a show is billed as “An Evening with David Rawlings,” you know that you are going to be treated to Americana at its most genuine. Rawlings is one of the most revered practitioners of the genre and his two hour plus show at Northampton’s Academy of Music on November 28th featured spirited bluegrass, raucous rockabilly, old country, folk and a touch of gospel.
For over twenty years, Rawlings has recorded and toured with his musical partner Gillian Welch. They frequently work under her name only and a Gillian Welch show is stripped down somewhat quiet affair. But this being a Rawlings show, not only did it mean David handled the majority of the lead vocals, but he also brought along a band and there was nothing quiet about this group. The band featured Welch on guitar and vocals, Brittany Haas on fiddle, Paul Kowert on bass and Willie Watson on banjo and guitar. Rawlings was well aware of the talent he had assembled and made sure that they all had ample time to solo, with Watson even taking a turn at the mic with a cover of Charley Jordan’s “Keep it Clean.”
Rawlings started the night off with the jaunty “Money is the Meat in the Coconut,” followed by “Midnight Train,” on which his and Welch’s voices blended seamlessly, demonstrating how musically intertwined the pair are. Both songs were off his recently released Poor David’s Almanack his third album under his own moniker. Rawlings played most of that album during this two-set show and also offered up covers that ranged from Bob Dylan to Henry Whitter. The band offered up a spirited version of “To Be Young, (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High) a song Rawlings co-wrote with Ryan Adams, that appeared on Adams’ “Heartbreaker” album. Rawlings switched to banjo for this tune and also brought out guest fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves who appeared at various points throughout the night, teaming up with Haas to double up on the fiery fiddle sound.
While much of the evening’s music carried echoes of the past, one of the highlights was the very contemporary sounding “Cumberland Gap,” a song that wouldn’t be out of place on a Neil Young record. Coincidently on the day of this show, it was announced that this song was nominated for a Grammy as “Best American Roots Song.”
Throughout the night, Rawlings frequent solos reminded us what a great but underappreciated guitarist he is. Some of his most inventive guitar playing was heard on “Guitar Man,” a track that could be autobiographical. The crowd saved their loudest hoots and hollers for a cover of Bill Monroe’s “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire,” that transformed the staid theater into a feel-good jam on the back porch. After wrapping with the melodic, “The Weekend,” the band returned for a four-song encore the included Welch taking center stage for her “Look at Miss Ohio” and ended with Watson, Welch and Rawlings singing into one microphone for a beautiful version of the traditional, “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby.”