The first thing you notice about the Dave Rawlings Machine is the movement of its namesake.
Up on his toes, the tips of his boots nearly touching, the brim of his cowboy hat bobbing and weaving, his limbs and fingers and head popping and jerking as if an electric current is coursing through them — Dave Rawlings puts all of himself into his music.
The second thing you notice about the Dave Rawlings Machine — in such close proximity to the first thing it might as well be concurrent — is the immaculate latticework of voices.
Rawlings and his long-time collaborator, Gillian Welch, have a vocal alchemy so magical that, even after watching it happen before you for close to two hours, you still can’t fathom how two human beings can seem to sing in something that seems deeper and richer than mere harmony.
Both elements combine, as they did Friday night at the Majestic Theatre, to create an evening of intoxicating music.
Rawlings and Welch are joined by three other musicians (guitarist/vocalist Willie Watson, bassist Paul Kowart and fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves) to make up the full Machine, although the roughly two-hour set, which was split by a 20-minute intermission, finds them performing in various permutations (as a duo, as a trio or as a quintet).
That sensation of watching someone take hold of a powerful current returns when considering the set list. The easy descriptor here would be Americana, the catch-all designation for anything that doesn’t feel explicitly country or explicitly folk or explicitly rock. Rawlings favors songs from one end of the temporal spectrum to the other.
Friday’s performance encompassed everything from Bob Dylan (a wondrous spin on Queen Jane Approximately) to Ryan Adams (Rawlings dusted off To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High), which he co-wrote with Adams) to Woody Guthrie (This Land is Your Land was woven into I Hear Them All, a tune co-written with Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor) — the full force of American music for the last half century, grasped and held onto and made into something alive and new.
Far from feeling weighed down by years, Friday’s set — performed before a mostly full house, which wasn’t shy about singing and clapping along, offering appreciative hoots and scattered ovations — was buoyant, taking wing on the talent of those gathered on stage.
When Rawlings ripped into an extended solo, as he did during the moving Bells of Harlem, it hit with tremendous force — almost literally breathtaking.
As Welch, Rawlings and Watson would harmonize, high and low — voices knit so tightly not even a speck of dust could slip between them — the songs, whether newer (Bodysnatchers or Short Haired Woman Blues, pulled from last year’s Nashville Obsolete) or older (It’s Too Easy, Sweet Tooth or Charley Jordan’s Keep It Clean) almost vibrated, as if each new tune was a string on Rawlings’ flat-picked archtop guitar.
All of it hung in the still Majestic air, filling the room with warm, welcoming sound, and working its way through the audience, until it too was as full of elated movement as the men and women on stage.