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Let It Rawl: The longtime backer for Gillian Welch steps out with the Dave Rawlings Machine tonight. Welch appears with him.

Welcome to the Machine

Dave Rawlings, longtime banjo associate of Gillian Welch, trades places with his famous bandmate in the Dave Rawlings Machine, playing the Rio this week.

By Paul Davis

David Rawlings is about as far removed from boy-band impresario Lou Pearlman as one can imagine, but if the Americana music world had an equivalent, Rawlings would be the man.

Over the past two decades, Rawlings has been the genre's hardest-working man behind the scenes, serving as Gillian Welch's primary collaborator while producing seminal albums by Ryan Adams and the Old Crow Medicine Show and recording with Bright Eyes and Robyn Hitchcock.

All these artists are eminently talented in their own right, but judging from the unimpeachable list of albums that bear the Rawlings stamp, it's clear that he coaxed some of their best work out of them. As a result, he's a bit of a legend in folk and Americana circles, spoken of in the same reverential tones that rock guitarists reserve for Eddie Van Halen or bluegrass fans for Bela Fleck.

For the bulk of his career, however, Rawlings has remained on the sidelines, deferring the spotlight in favor of his collaborators. With the Dave Rawlings Machine, that deference has come to an end.

But this doesn't necessarily mean that Rawlings is breaking with his past. The Dave Rawlings Machine merely flips the script, putting his longtime musical partner Gillian Welch in the supporting role.

The shows comprise something of a Rawlings best-of revue, including originals, notable highlights from his past work (such as the indelible Rawlings-Ryan Adams collaboration "To Be Young [is to be sad, is to be high]",) and folk chestnuts such as "Big Rock Candy Mountain."

Touring intimate venues in smaller markets, there's an increased spontaneity at a Dave Rawlings Machine show than there would be if Gillian Welch's name topped the marquee. Despite the stark beauty of Welch's output, it's an undeniable kick to see the two drop some of the solemnity and tear through songs like Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" or Jerry Garcia's "Panama Red."

And tear Rawlings does, abusing his signature vintage three-quarter-size guitar with an intensity that seems jarringly counter to the intricate beauty he can conjure from the instrument. What Rawlings lacks in grace he makes up in ability.

It's this talent--along with a deft sense of harmony and arrangement--that signals that despite Rawlings' ubiquity, he is far from a Machiavellian figure pulling the strings on Americana's brightest stars. With the Dave Rawlings Machine, these prodigious talents come to the fore.

THE DAVE RAWLINGS MACHINE with GILLIAN WELCH plays Wednesday, March 25, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25 advance/$28 at the door, available at Streetlight Records or

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