The Machine gets the Led out

by Ryan Snyder

He stood to the right of David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, as restrained and elegant as the lore of the greatest hard rock band of all time remembers him, yet radiating the formidable presence of a man who could help sell out the largest venues on earth with a word. For most practical purposes on Sunday night at the Cat’s Cradle, he was just another cog in the mighty Dave Rawlings Machine that included Old Crowe co-founder Willie Watson and bassist Paul Cowart of the Punch Brothers. He spoke all of two words of casual banter over the band’s two-plus-hour performance — a humble nod to the greatness of Mama Dip’s fried chicken — but he was the elephant in the sold-out room all night.

Then, after his impressive mandolin playing cornered the spotlight during a turn of the familiar “Going to California” followed by a stew of Bright Eyes’ “Method Acting” and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” Rawlings finally gave him a proper, emphatic introduction. “JOHN- PAUL-JONES,” he shouted, as the three syllables rang out like gunfire and the room responded as such.

Very quietly last week, the Dave Rawlings Machine’s rolling celebration of the American folk song left behind a smoldering wake during seven shows in seven days. The short tour’s month of lead time was accompanied by almost zero promotion, only a blurb stating that he and his creative life-partner Welch would be joined by members of Old Crowe Medicine Show, Led Zeppelin and the Punch Brothers. It was word of mouth, the promise of virtuosic singing and picking, and a set list than would draw from generations of country, rock and blues that would help sell out night No. 4, just as it had the three before it.

Like Robert Plant, Jones has for the past few years been more interested in immersing himself in the bedrock from which Led Zeppelin launched. While Plant was busy reviving his traditionalist outfit Band of Joy, Jones made an out-of-nowhere appearance to quietly play alongside Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn at the Spring 2010 Shakori Hills Festival in Pittsboro. This came shortly after he had produced Washburn’s old-time group, Uncle Earl, which was why to no one’s surprise another of his protégés from that band, Asheville fiddler Rayna Gellert, came along to supplement the Machine’s already remarkable arsenal of talent.

The evening was the quintessential rollercoaster of Dave Rawlings Machine hushed ballads and enthusiastic rave-ups. They lead off with the typical old-time set closer “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” made a wry chronological correlation between the standard “Turn Your Radio On” and Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” and visited Rawlings’ North Carolina connection with a sing-along of Ryan Adams’ “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High).” And that was only in the first set.

Everyone sang, and beautifully — especially Watson on a glorious lead on Creedence’s “Midnight Special” — save for Jones who was content to offer highly subdued accents as he seemed to still be in the process of learning many of their encyclopedia of tunes. The band accepted a single request, “Monkey and the Engineer,” since, as Rawlings said, “it’s short and we’re in that key anyway.” Jones didn’t quite know the words, but it was fun watching the invincible put out his vulnerabilities for all to see anyway. !