In which Steve Kolowich and Ted Scheinman, who play together in a roots band of dubious authenticity, converse over e-mail.
Steve: Howdy, Ted!
Like that country vernacular? Sure, I’m a blue-blooded New Englander, born and bred. But if I learned anything from last night’s excellent show at the 9:30 Club, it’s that authenticity is as authenticity does. Consider the most visible members of the Dave Rawlings Machine: Dave Rawlings, a Rhode Islander who got his chops at Boston’s Berklee School of Music; Gillian Welch, the Manhattanite who did the same; and Ketch Secor (known more widely as the co-founder of Old Crow Medicine Show), who cut his teeth on banjo while attending… Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire???
And yet I’m sure you’ll agree, Ted, that last night’s ramble, for all its borrowed twang, bore no stain of affectation. And the crowd! I haven’t felt that sort of energy in a 9:30 audience before, ever. Yuppies all, singing along to old country ballads about Virginia coal miners; then sent home, inspired, to practice the tabs for “How’s About You?” before waking up to cinch a necktie and ride the Metro to their jobs as associate coordinator of whatever at the National Coalition for Whatever. Were we all phonies? Did it matter?
Ted: Good points all, Steve. The “phony” question, to me, is a sort of distraction—like when high-schoolers dock Thoreau for having abandoned his woodsy fastness to eat dinner with his mother. Let’s remember: Robbie Robertson was from Toronto, John Fogerty was born in Berkeley not the Bayou, and as Steven Colbert once said, “Look, people, I don’t see race. People tell me I’m white, and I believe them, because I listen to a lot of rap music.”
So I’m worried less about street cred than about Dave Rawlings’ soul, which he apparently sold to the devil in exchange for his fiendish skills with the flat-pick.
Also, I’d like to point out that what you lose in down-home bona fides you sometimes recoup in professionalism. Nashville, Muscle Shoals, and the like produce virtuosos, sure. But when four-part harmony over sophisticated chicken-pickin’ packs the wallop of last night’s performance, it seems silly to fault those responsible for having gone to conservatory.
Side-note: What’s the deal with all this René Magritte imagery? [See right.] I’d never suspected Rawlings of surrealist tendencies.
Steve: I see we’ve been perusing the merch? Can’t say I blame you. Although divorced from Rawlings that antique Epiphone might prove an ineffective madeleine for last night’s experience, given the particular coextension of player and instrument in this case.
Not being a guitarist, it’s hard for me to speak intelligently about the man’s technique. But I will say this: I’m easily annoyed by players who seem to be playing a lot of notes simply because they can. And Rawlings used nearly every song as the foundation for solos that sometimes bordered on ostentatious. So why didn’t I care? I think it might have been because the songcraft always remained the centerpiece. See their cover of Neil Young‘s “Cortez the Killer” (mashed up with Bright Eyes‘ “Method Acting”), where Rawlings rattled off measure after measure of rapid-fire fills, yet managed to do so without compromising the song’s plodding pace or heavy tone.
Maybe Gillian Welch, with her even, methodical counterstrokes, is to credit? You’re the superior guitarist and aesthete of our little outfit, Ted. Help me understand what I felt and why.
Ted: You’re a fine guitar player, Steve. And I don’t know what an aesthete is, but I’m sure it’ll clear up with a little cream and a visit to your GP.
Meanwhile, I’d say the reason you didn’t complain is that you were basically like a 13-year-old at a Justin Bieber concert. All of your most primal musical instincts were satisfied. Twanging banjos! Dueling harps! Hell, I haven’t even mentioned that they closed with “The Weight,” a decision of which I disapproved while gladly singing along. All of which is to say: Rawlings probably could’ve covered an ABBA song and you still would’ve needed a change of pants.
I haven’t seen you squeal with such delight since the Rte. 29 Revue.
SERIOUSLY THOUGH: I hear you. I wrestled with this last night, too. Thing is, Rawlings is operating—banjo or no—in a distinctly bluegrass-inflected vein. And in bluegrass, blistering arpeggios and verbose solos are almost part of the rhythm section. They happen, they’ve got a kind of mechanical pizazz, they demonstrate that the player in question knows what a scale is. This is the least exciting part of bluegrass to me. All I’m saying: it comes with the territory. And I think what sets Rawlings apart (and exempts him from being labeled a solo whore) is his sense of melody and his allergy to resolution—he builds tension in unexpected places, leading this lithe-ass string band on wonderful dynamic loops, and gets a pretty distinctive sound blending traditional pickings with eerie, non-vernacular dissonances. Which means white-boy covers of songs like “Maybellene” come out sounding new, and slow originals like “The Way It Would Be” come out rather sinister.
Or maybe the real point is: Dave Rawlings has been modest for a long time. Maybe it’s his turn to show off.
But hey, we haven’t hit the highlights yet. Isn’t that what people expect out of these things? OK, that’s enough ramblin’ from my end. Play me out, Steve!
Steve: Way to drop Bieber’s name, you traffic-baiting whore. Highlights? Too many to name, but here’s a sampling: “Dark as a Dungeon” (a Merle Travis cover whose melody perfectly suited the Machine’s voice-blend), “Look at Miss Ohio” (a Welch classic that the crowd lifted to anthemic heights), and the dancing-girls choreography on “Sweet Tooth,” courtesy of Secor and Gabe Witcher (of the Punch Brothers, standing in for Machine mainstay Willie Watson). And “Ruby,” obviously.
We’re out of time, so let’s agree to agree on those. I’ve gotta go rub balm on my aesthete’s foot.
Sketch of the Dave Rawlings Machine, above, by Aaron Wiener