Special guests were promised for this final instalment of Campfire Trails, and that promise was certainly fulfilled from the very start. For the Dave Rawlings Machine opening set, the wonderful Gillian Welch made her first appearance on a London stage since 2003. The Rawlings-Welch partnership were also joined by members of Old Crow Medicine Show and, unassumingly at the far end of the stage, by the legendary John Paul Jones on mandolin.
Whilst this was nominally the first Dave Rawlings tour, the music shares plenty of common ground with Welch’s much loved albums, with the balance of the harmonies inverted to favour Rawlings’ voice. Their invigorating, committed and engaging performance included original songs and reinterpretations, and drew from a wide range of traditional American music, including Nashville country and bluegrass. Welch and Rawlings’ literate songs are graceful, emotive and playful and with the assistance of their guest musicians, this old time music seemed to flow effortlessly and naturally. Throughout, Rawlings was peerless on the guitar, demonstrating his superb flatpicking style.
To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High), the song Rawlings co-wrote with Ryan Adams for the Heartbreaker album was made more traditional through Rawlings’ strong articulation on the banjo. I Hear Them All, a tender, delicate flower on the A Friend Of A Friend album, was converted into a spirited hoe-down, and segued into Woody Guthrie‘s This Land Is Your Land. Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere in the crowd at this point was electric, even more so when Welch took over lead vocals for Look At Miss Ohio, one of her simplest and most direct songs.
Rawlings clearly shares his partner’s love for sprawling, allusive narratives, although on this occasion, the pair created one through a medley of two cover versions. Rawlings delivers Bright Eyes‘ Method Acting with considerably more nuance, subtlety and clarity than Conor Oberst could ever manage himself. When this then merged seamlessly into an acoustic take on Neil Young‘s Cortez The Killer made for a surprisingly impressive single piece. Young’s rambling, relentless, beautiful piece provides the perfect source material for Rawlings and Welch’s mysterious, allusive, dreamy narrative style. The group then finished with a charged take on Bob Dylan‘s Queen Jane Approximately.
Following such an outstanding performance was never going to be easy for Old Crow Medicine Show, but the old time string band have a surprisingly loyal and vocal following in London. They launched quickly into the uptempo Hard To Love with convincing authority. Bassist Morgan Jahnig provided the perfect length of note – the group’s grasp of time and feel was astonishing throughout.
Whilst the group all take their turn on lead vocals, the nominal frontmen are Ketch Secor, with his self-mocking sense of humour (“I can hear that old Docklands Light Railway coming down the tracks!”) and Willie Watson, with his warm presence and confident vocal performance. They are often categorised as bluegrass but, like Welch and Rawlings, draw inspiration from across the traditional American spectrum. The breezy, relaxed Highway Halo sounded more like a contemporary country song.
With Rawlings, Welch and Jones rejoining the group towards the end, the show had something of an old time revue feel to it. From here on, there was certainly spirit, fun and energy but also a loss of nuance and accuracy. When surprise guests Mumford and Sons join in, there are simply too many people on stage. Whilst the Old Crows manage to combine guitars, fiddles and banjos without getting in each other’s way, the big party on stage began to sound a bit muddy. Mumford expressed nervousness and gratitude for his chance to perform with an authentic American folk band, but the performance of Roll Away Your Stone merely emphasised how far his own songs actually are from his proclaimed inspirations. His lyrics were exposed as humourless and earnest, whilst his delivery seemed as graceless and affected as it sounds on record. At least he left his kick drum at home.
The main set ended with a mass singalong of Wagon Wheel, the song with debatable provenance (is it really a Dylan song?) that has become something of an anthem for the group. There’s then a further encore through Tell It To Me and The Band’s The Weight. By this stage, the audience was ecstatic, and no-one seemed to care that the performance had lost some of its initial feel and quality. But then again, for two hours and more, this had been an outstanding show.