Among those in the know, including the adoring fans who packed McDonald Theatre to see him play March 8, David Rawlings is one of the world’s most innovative and surprising guitar players — think Django Reinhardt meets Neil Young at his most surreally unbound, and you begin to get the idea. What’s less remarked, however, is what a great songwriter Rawlings is, as evidenced by a growing body of music that delves with equal ease into the realm of Appalachian Americana, canonic country, foot-stomping gospel and the timeless sepia-tint of the Tin Pan Alley era.
Rawlings hit the stage Thursday with his high-caliber band — including frequent collaborator Gillian Welch, Paul Kowert of the Punch Brothers, Willie Watson and violin virtuoso Brittany Haas — and proceeded to tear through set list that included favorites like “Ruby” and “The Weekend” as well as instant classics like “Airplane” from his 2018 album Poor David’s Almanac. At once high-energy and warmly accommodating, the band raised the roof, Nashville style, drawing the audience in with a sense of shared mission that reached its peak with a furious, timely rendition of the Woody Guthrie classic “This Land is Your Land.”
Rawlings, ever a generous performer with his aw-shucks grin and genuine friendliness, is adept at turning even a large venue like the McDonald into a cozy barn dance, and when someone in the audience yelled out, “Will you come play at my house, Dave?” Rawlings replied, with a grin, that he was already sorta there. Of course, as pleasant and polite as Rawlings is as a person, his guitar work is inexorably fierce and furious, experimental and explosive — a fact that must be reckoned live to truly appreciate. Mystical moments abound during the show, with the man taking his six-strings into seemingly uncharted realms of technique and raw emotion, shattering expectations at every bended note and altered tempo. And all with an unadorned acoustic.
Rawlings, all in all, feels like the best of best-kept secrets, even as his popularity among the NPR elite grows. His shows are like a sepia-tinted benediction that looks forward as it looks back — a sacred glimpse into the heart of American roots music, which survives and persists as something essential to our being. Rawlings and crew hit all the right notes: praise, protest, sadness, world-weariness, romance and a kind of bemused, cautious joy at the wonders of existence itself, all wrapped in the timeless sounds of Nashville. — Rick Levin | Photos by Mike Sheahan